Friday, September 5, 2014

Abortion Stigma, Human Rights & the Post-2015 Development Agenda

In 1994 at the ICPD, governments from around the world recognized unsafe abortion as a major public health concern,[1] and affirmed that reproductive rights include the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence, which were reaffirmed again in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Yet as of 2014, unsafe abortion continues to be one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, where an estimated 47,000 women die each year, accounting for approximately 13% of maternal deaths worldwide,
[2] and an additional 5 million women are annually hospitalized because of abortion-related complications.[3]

Abortion-related stigma is one of the primary factors that places safe, legal and accessible abortion care and services out of reach for individuals worldwide,[4] particularly in the Global South and particularly for young, poor, and unmarried women. Moreover, while socio-cultural factors entail that abortion stigma may take different forms in different places, abortion stigma is a global issue, demonstrated by the rise of legal and policy restrictions in places as diverse as the United States, Spain, Lithuania, and El Salvador, among others.

Why is abortion stigma so pervasive? It largely draws its strength from gender stereotypes used to deny individuals access to abortion, particularly the stereotype ascribing women to the role of motherhood. This stereotype implies that women “should prioritize childbearing and childrearing over all other roles they might perform or choose. […] nothing should be more important for women than the bearing and rearing of children.”
[5] As a result, abortion stigma and gender stereotypes, which in some cases are exacerbated by religious fundamentalisms, negatively impact the way a given society perceives abortion, as well as those who seek or have had an abortion, those who work in abortion care, and those who actively support abortion rights. At the legal and/or policy level, in turn, abortion stigma plays out in either justifying restrictive laws, or in preventing politicians or government representatives from speaking out on abortion rights, for fear of being perceived as too “radical” or “controversial,” and losing popular support. No space better illustrates this challenge than the intergovernmental deliberations regarding the Post-2015 Development Agenda, where UN bodies and governments have set out to establish the development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals, and where discussions surrounding universal access to safe and legal abortion have been virtually inaudible.
This silence, however, is unacceptable. In limiting individuals’ access to safe and legal abortion, abortion stigma and wrongful gender stereotypes fuel discrimination against women, and violate their human right to reproductive choice, as enshrined in article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

20 years ago, governments reaffirmed individuals’ rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, control over their fertility and privacy. This September 28, join us in calling on governments to speak out against abortion stigma, uphold their human rights commitments on eliminating wrongful gender stereotypes,[6] and ensure the inclusion of the human right to safe and legal abortion in the Post-2015 Agenda!


“Criminal laws penalizing and restricting induced abortion are the paradigmatic examples of impermissible barriers to the realization of women’s right to health and must be eliminated. These laws infringe women’s dignity and autonomy by severely restricting decision-making by women in respect of their sexual and reproductive health. Moreover, such laws consistently generate poor physical health outcomes, resulting in deaths that could have been prevented, morbidity and ill-health, as well as negative mental health outcomes, not least because affected women risk being thrust into the criminal justice system. Creation or maintenance of criminal laws with respect to abortion may amount to violations of the obligations of States to respect, protect and fulfil the right to health.”  Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health (2011), Para 21, A/66/254.


“States parties’ obligation is to address prevailing gender relations and the persistence of gender based stereotypes that affect women not only through individual acts by individuals but also in law, and legal and societal structures and institutions.” CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation No. 25, on article 4, para. 7

During Montevideo Conference on Population and Development Latin American and Caribbean States agreed to "ensure, in those cases where abortion is legal or decriminalized under the relevant national legislation, the availability of safe, good-quality abortion services for women with unwanted and unaccepted pregnancies, and urge States to consider amending their laws, regulations, strategies and public policies relating to the voluntary termination of pregnancy in order to protect the lives and health of women and adolescent girls, to improve their quality of life and to reduce the number of abortions". Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development (2013), Para 42.


"Reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized [...]. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health." Beijing Platform for Action (1995), Para. 95

  • Cusack, Simone and Rebecca Cook (2010), Stereotyping Women in the Health Sector: Lessons from CEDAW, Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice 16.1 (Fall 2010): 47-78.
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (2014), Statement of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: Beyond 2014 ICPD Review.
  • International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion (2014), Safe abortion and the post-2015 agenda.

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