Access to safe and legal abortion is a central human rights issue. Human Rights Watch’s experience, in particular in Latin America, has reaffirmed that women’s ability to decide if, when, how often, and with whom to have children is fundamental to their ability to make independent decisions about work, education and family life.
In short, limitations to decision-making in the reproductive area hamper decision-making in nearly every other area of women’s lives; and limitations to women’s access to safe and legal abortion is, our preliminary research has shown, part and parcel of other limitations to reproductive health and information. Yet the link between abortion and human rights has not always been made explicit. In many countries in Latin America, traditional human rights groups have shied away from the protection of women’s human rights beyond the occasional case related to rape as torture. And many Latin American feminist groups have not used human rights law as a tool in their advocacy.
Research conducted by Human Rights Watch has confirmed what numerous other studies have shown: restrictive abortion laws do nothing to eliminate the need for abortion, but merely contribute to the use of unsafe services to the serious detriment of women’s health and lives. Our reports look at this issue in a much broader context of women’s rights violations, including denial of access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare generally, and impunity for violence against women. It is precisely the close links between these issues that our research and advocacy on abortion has sought to illustrate. Women do not need abortions in a vacuum. Often, women face crisis pregnancies because family planning is unavailable to them or has failed, and women’s decisions about abortion are taken in the context of their family or community. This simple truth is not generally reflected in public policies regarding violence, health and abortion.
This article begins by reflecting in more depth on the links between abortion and human rights. It goes on to illustrate the scope for human rights advocacy in relation to the struggle for abortion rights in a number of Latin American countries. In doing so, it draws out regional commonalities and contextual differences, exploring entry points for activism and change.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.3 (2008) Abortion and Human Rights: Examples from Latin America