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Reproductive Rights are Human Rights: Promises Unfulfilled

International Human Rights Day 2006

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International Human Rights Day this December 10 will mark the 58th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People around the world will gather to celebrate the principles of freedom, justice, and equality so eloquently expressed in the Universal Declaration, and to encourage their governments to guarantee the full expression of all fundamental rights enshrined in international law.

Reproductive rights advocates will be among those who gather to raise their voices.

Sexual and reproductive rights are integral to basic human rights. Yet they are commonly ignored by governments and at times receive short shrift from some members of the broader human rights community.

This cold shoulder toward reproductive rights is cause for concern. Reproductive rights are rooted in principles unambiguously articulated in the Universal Declaration, including the rights to life, health, bodily integrity, non-discrimination, consent to and equality in marriage, and freedom from all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women affirms this by explicitly recognizing women’s reproductive rights. Currently 185 countries—although notably not the United States—are party to the Convention, which entered into force in 1979.

Reproductive are too often subsumed by highly contentious debates about abortion. But reproductive rights go far beyond abortion. The global fight for reproductive rights is the fight against maternal mortality, forced and coerced sterilization, and gender-based discrimination and harassment. It is the struggle to give women the power to decide for themselves whether, when, and with whom to have children, and for access to sound, medically accurate information about family planning and sexually transmitted infections. It is the battle for universal access to all forms of contraception for both women and men. And it is the effort to protect women, men, and children from the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS.

In short, the reproductive rights movement seeks to empower people all over the world by promoting their agency and control over personal sexual and reproductive health decisions. Reproductive rights advocates are increasingly using human rights standards and strategies to expand the fight for the reproductive rights of women and girls.

Activists in Africa, for example, successfully invoked the international rights to non-discrimination, health, and bodily integrity to achieve the criminalization of female genital mutilation in 14 countries. Cambodia’s national population policy makes specific reference to the government’s commitments under international human rights treaties. A young Chilean woman who was expelled from school because she became pregnant successfully challenged her expulsion based on international rights that guarantee privacy and equal protection under the law. When a young Peruvian woman was drugged, raped by a doctor at a state medical facility, and denied justice by local courts, a lawsuit filed before an international human rights tribunal resulted not only in justice for the victim, but also in improvements related to the treatment of rape victims by state authorities. And because international human rights law takes precedence over domestic law in Colombia, this past May the Colombian Constitutional Court overturned the country’s longstanding absolute ban on abortion, thanks to a legal challenge presented by a local activist.

Despite these and many other important advances, the global movement for reproductive rights continues to face numerous urgent challenges. Nicaragua, which previously permitted abortions under limited circumstances, adopted one of the world’s most restrictive abortion bans on November 17. The new law, which violates both the equality and right to life guaranteed to women under the Nicaraguan constitution, outlaws abortion under all circumstances—even to save a woman’s life.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in a letter to Nicaragua’s Minister of Foreign Relations that “therapeutic abortion has been internationally recognized as a specialized and necessary health service for women,” and that “[d]enial of this service endangers women’s lives as well as their physical and psychological integrity.” Yet today any woman undergoing an abortion in Nicaragua, as well as any medical professional involved in terminating a pregnancy, may be sent to prison for up to six years.

In Nicaragua, as in the vast majority of the world’s poor nations, the proportion of women dying due to pregnancy and birth-related complications is staggering. According to estimates developed jointly by the WHO, UNICEF, and the UNFPA, the lifetime risk of maternal death for a woman living in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2000 was one in 160 births; in Sub-Saharan Africa the ratio was one in 16. By comparison, the ratio for women living in the world’s richest countries was one in 2,800.

The right to survive pregnancy and childbirth is inherent in the fundamental human right to life, yet a third of all pregnant women in the developing world receive no health care whatsoever during pregnancy. Maternal mortality rates have held steady at unacceptably high levels for the past 15 years when, according to The Lancet, “simple, cheap and effective interventions have existed for more than 50 years…but…are not available in many parts of the world.” This disparity is a clear indication that governments and other institutions are ignoring reproductive health needs—a clear violation of their female citizens’ human rights.

Reproductive rights are a legitimate part of international law. Yet because these rights continue to be violated with impunity, women, men, and families suffer. This suffering is not unavoidable; it is the product of deliberate neglect by governments and other institutions. Countries that have agreed to adhere to international human rights guarantees must no longer be permitted to shirk their commitment to making reproductive rights a reality, and organizations dedicated to promoting human rights must recognize and assume their responsibility to hold governments accountable for all of their human rights commitments.

Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray is a Senior Program Assistant at the Moriah Fund. Shira Saperstein is the Deputy Director of the Moriah Fund and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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