Access to safe abortion and human rights are closely tied together. People opt for safe abortions for many reasons. This includes saving their own lives, staying healthy, avoiding bringing up a child in poor conditions, and not having to live with the consequences of a rape. All these reasons, and many more, are directly connected to various human rights – rights that belong to us no matter who we are, where we come from, and what we do. This includes the rights to freedom, liberty, a healthy life, bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health care. Access to safe abortion upholds these human rights and preventing safe abortion violates them.
That is why there are many countries where access to safe abortion is enshrined in the law. In 75 countries, people of reproductive age can get an abortion on request. In 13 other countries, abortion is permitted on broad social and economic grounds. Then there are countries that either allow abortion to preserve health (48 countries) or to save the pregnant person’s life (41 countries). The hope and the goal are to make safe abortion universal.
How are safe abortion and human rights connected?
To elaborate how safe abortion and human rights are connected, let’s run through some of the most vital human rights:
Right to life
Unsafe abortions are closely associated with high rates of maternal death. If a person cannot access safe abortion options, they are forced to look for other options. This may force them to travel to another place where abortion is legal, but they could also end up looking for dangerous options where they live. According to WHO, 4.7–13.2% of maternal deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortions. This is why access to safe abortion protects our human right to life.
Right to health
An abortion requires special health-care considerations. This includes access to safe medicines and correct information in the case of self-managed abortion; and additionally, sterilized medical equipment and trained medical professionals when opting for an in-clinic abortion. In the absence of these basic things, an abortion can lead to health complications such as heavy bleeding, infection and damage to internal organs. This can put a person’s health at risk for a long time. Hence, going through an unsafe abortion can violate the human right to health.
Right to no discrimination
Since abortion concerns people with uteruses, the entire debate around this medical procedure is connected to sex-related discrimination. If laws prevent abortion, they make it difficult or even impossible for people with uteruses to exercise their right to personal freedom on the basis of equality with people without uteruses. This means that they discriminate against people based on their sex and disregard one of the most basic tenets of human rights.
Right to self-determination
People have the right to make important decisions about their lives. This is especially true for decisions as personal as having an abortion. In this sense, the right to self-determination is only fulfilled when people can protect their physical integrity and privacy and can decide, without any pressure, if, when, and how many children to have. If any law prohibits people from making these decisions freely, it contradicts the human right to self-determination.
Of course, there are many more human rights, such as the right to information, freedom of religion, and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, that are also linked to access to safe abortion.
International human rights commitments for safe abortion
In addition to national laws, there are several international treaties and conventions that protect abortion as a human right. Some of the important ones are:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Adopted in 1948, the declaration is a milestone document which set out in clear terms the inviolable rights of every human being. According to this document, abortion is a human right because if people cannot decide how many children they can have and when to have them, they cannot control the kind of future they can have, especially one that includes opportunities to study, work and be a healthy and happy member of the global community.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Abbreviated as ICESCR, this covenant came into force in 1976. The document broadly protects sexual and reproductive rights in its various articles. It states that people have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. This, many health experts and activists argue, encompasses the right to control one’s health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedoms.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Also called the ICCPR, this covenant was introduced in 1976 as well and provides a range of protection regarding civil and political rights. Countries that have ratified this treaty are obliged to protect and preserve the right to life and human dignity; equality before the law; privacy; freedom from ill-treatment; gender equality and much more. As discussed above, these rights go hand in hand with the right to safe abortion.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Adopted in 1979, this convention is commonly called the International Bill of Rights of Women and abbreviated as CEDAW. As per this convention, women have the right to bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive freedom. This means women should be able to decide freely about pregnancy and should have access to information, education, and means to exercise this right.
Safe abortion and human rights for all
Despite these strong international conventions and many national laws, people’s experience of accessing health care varies drastically. This happens because people have different economic, social, and political realities which influence their chances of well-being. When access to safe abortion becomes difficult, this difference in experiences deteriorates further. That is why safe abortion is not just about equality in health care but about intersectional equity.
To take the example of people of color in White-majority countries, they often disproportionately experience income inequality and rely on state support. So, if access to safe abortion is hindered, they are the first ones to feel the heat.
Similarly, in some countries, indigenous people are more likely to be subjected to sexual violence and trafficking. Additionally, they experience several barriers to access health care because medical facilities, medicines and doctors are not easily available at or near their places of residence. The difficulties are compounded when access to safe abortion is also blocked.
In the case of people with disabilities, being forced to carry out a pregnancy and give birth can have deadly outcomes. They can suffer from birth related morbidity and mortality and are at risk of developing complications during pregnancy.
In the LGBTIQ+ community, when transgender men, intersex and gender-nonconforming people get pregnant, they need services like safe abortions to make choices about their bodies. Due to discrimination and inequality, these services are already hard to get. With abortion bans, it becomes nearly impossible, putting their lives in danger.
In conclusion, protecting abortion as a human right addresses equality in a more holistic way.