Pro-life or pro-choice? Pro-rights

Published on 5 December 2018

With the recent passing of an abortion bill in the state of Ohio’s House of Representatives, and the imposition of the Global Gag Rule in 2017 which stopped funding for services providing abortion advice and care overseas, the US is undermining women’s rights both at home and abroad. Debates around abortion have been characterised by pro-life vs pro-choice arguments. Yet, these are fundamentally questions of rights, as countries such as Ireland and Canada have underlined in their approaches to abortion.

Restrictive abortion laws

One of the potential impacts of the new abortion bill is that in the American state of Ohio, a woman could be punished with a fifth degree felony and $2,500 fine if her foetus’ heartbeat can be heard by a doctor after six weeks—an amount of time so short that she likely doesn’t even know about her pregnancy. Despite medical professionals traditionally being protected, the administering doctor can now also be penalised and there are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Yet there is political and popular support for the bill as indicated by the new governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, in The New York Times who said: “I will sign the bill, […] I believe that the essential function of government is to protect the most vulnerable members of society. That includes the unborn.”

However, particularly given that maternal death rates are record-high in the US, what about the rights of vulnerable women?

There are also concerns about the impact of the ‘Gag’ rule on human rights globally.  Out of the 22,800–31,000 lives unnecessarily lost each year, the highest “case fatality rate” is in Africa (Guttmacher Institute 2017). Under the current conservative regime in the US, this disregard for women’s lives has expanded into our development funding with the extension of the rule and again, ‘the world’s most vulnerable women will suffer’. Dangerously, when more restrictions are placed on abortion rights, more unsafe abortions are had.

A violation of women’s human rights

In August 2017, the United Nations Committee against Torture found that in Ireland, severe physical and mental anguish and distress was brought upon women and girls due to the country’s restrictive abortion laws. Specifically, a woman’s human rights were violated: her right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; her rights to privacy; and her right to non-discrimination.

Human Rights Watch argued this year that the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; the right to decide the number and spacing of children; and the right to liberty are all examples of human rights that “may be at risk” when abortion is restricted. Women’s human rights are at risk as seen by the increase in unsafe abortions due to restrictive laws.

The US withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, (I could write a whole other blog post about this disastrous decision) however, it is still a member of several committees which demand access to safe and legal abortions, such as the Committee on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. CEDAW specifically states:

‘In 1999, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) recognized “laws that criminalize medical procedures only needed by women and that punish women who undergo those procedures” as a barrier to women’s access to appropriate health care.’ Center for Reproductive Rights, October 2011

Punishing women in the state of Ohio with a fine and prison time is in direct violation of CEDAW to which the US is a signing member.

The US should look to the European Court of Human Rights where in the case of Vo v. France it found that: ‘it is neither desirable, nor even possible as matters stand, to answer in the abstract the question whether the unborn child is a person for the purpose of Article 2 of the Convention …” (providing that “[e]veryone’s right to life shall be protected by law”).’ The court denied a ruling that would’ve distorted the meaning of the right to life.

Meanwhile, in the US, ‘pro-life’ groups continue to construct their own meaning of this international right, i.e. the right to life; and are obstructing justice for those women who are most certainly alive in the process. That is, until they die.

There is hope. We can look at Ireland’s transformative policy stance on abortion as an example of progress. The country recently revoked its ban on abortion and made the procedure free of charge to all women. Canada is also a leader with the Minister of Status of Women declaring the denial of an abortion as a form of gender-based violence (GBV). This means that the conversation will shift from that of simply a ‘woman’s health issue’ to one of a woman’s right to be free from all forms of violence, including forced motherhood.

Want to do something about this right now? Join me—and many across the world —in celebrating International Human Rights Day this month, on the final day of the 16 Days of Activism campaign to end Gender Based Violence. See hashtags on Twitter #16DaysofActivism #HearMeNow #StandUpForHumanRights and share your messages of support. If you are in Brighton, the University of Sussex is holding a Rememberance Vigil for GBV to mark the end of the campaign on Monday, December 10. Please know that your individual action can make a difference, perhaps even more so than institutional influence can, during this volatile time.

Emily O’Hara is a MA, Gender and Development student at IDS.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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