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United States: Authorities manipulating COVID-19 crisis to restrict access to abortion, say UN experts

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GENEVA (27 May 2020) ­– UN experts* said today that some US states appear to be manipulating the COVID-19 crisis to curb access to essential abortion care.

The UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls said COVID-19 emergency orders suspending procedures not deemed immediately medically necessary had been used by states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee to restrict access to abortion.

“We regret that the above-mentioned states, with a long history of restrictive practices against abortion, appear to be manipulating the crisis to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights,” saidElizabeth Broderick, Vice-Chair of the Working Group.

“This situation is also the latest example illustrating a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions in access to legal abortion care across the country. We fear that, without clear political will to reverse such restrictive and regressive trends, states will continue pursuing this pattern,” Broderick said.

The Working Group said access to abortion services was crucial in this time of crisis when women have to grapple with new restrictions on their mobility, due to quarantines and lockdowns.

“We also express serious concern that, by denying access to time-sensitive abortion care, officials are placing women at risk, exacerbating systemic inequalities. For many women in the US, bans on abortion during this pandemic will delay abortion care beyond the legal time limit or render abortion services completely inaccessible,” Broderick said. 

Restrictions on essential reproductive health services undermine public health efforts to respond to COVID-19. Where bans on abortion are being implemented, women will be forced to travel out of state to obtain abortion services, thereby risking their own health and disregarding public health guidelines, the expert said.

“Abortion care constitutes essential health care and must remain available during the COVID-19 crisis. Restrictions on access to comprehensive reproductive health information and services, including abortion as well as contraception, constitute human rights violations and can cause irreversible harm, in particular to low-income women and those belonging to racial minorities and immigrant communities,” Broderick said. 

Denying women access to information and services which only they require and failing to address their specific health and safety is inherently discriminatory and prevents women from exercising control over their own bodies and lives.

The Working Group said it was also extremely concerned by the US insistence, through a letter on 18 May from USAID to the UN Secretary-General, to remove references to “sexual and reproductive health and its derivatives” from the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) on COVID-19.

“We reiterate that sexual and reproductive health services, including access to safe and legal abortion, are essential and must remain a key component of the UN’s priorities in its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Removing references to sexual and reproductive health from the HRP will have devastating consequences for women worldwide. It will seriously undermine the international community’s joint effort to respond to women’s health needs in this time of crisis,” Broderick said.

The experts have been in contact with the US Government beforehand to clarify the issues in question.

ENDS

(*) The Working Group on discrimination against women and girls was established by the Human Rights Council in September 2010. It is comprised of five independent experts: Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane (Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick (Vice Chair), Ms. Alda Facio, Ms. Ivana Radačić, and Ms. Melissa Upreti.

This statement has been endorsed by: Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health and Dubravka Šimonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;
The Working Group is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the United Nations Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

For more information and media requests, please contact Bernadette Arditi at: barditi@ohchr.org

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / laurence@ohchr.org) and John Newland (mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.

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