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Abortion is essential healthcare and women’s health must be prioritized over politics

International Safe Abortion Day
28 September 2021

On the International Safe Abortion Day, a group of UN experts* stress that abortion is essential health care and a human right. Denial of access to abortion services jeopardizes a person's physical and mental health and takes away their autonomy and agency. It unjustly denies them the freedom to live with dignity and on equal terms with other human beings while exposing them to various forms of violence and oppression.

Furthermore, and as Human Rights bodies have long acknowledged, the denial of abortion services through the criminalization of abortion or through barriers and delays in access to lawful services can in certain circumstances constitute cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment, may amount to torture and could lead to arbitrary detention.

Restrictions on abortion disproportionately disadvantage pregnant women and girls and put them in harm's way. Some of the worst physical and mental injuries, forms of violence, and deprivations of liberty faced by women and girls worldwide are linked to unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion. 25 million unsafe abortions take place annually, resulting in approximately 47,000 deaths every year, primarily in developing countries and among members of socioeconomically disadvantaged and marginalized populations.

The current non-enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health rights by women and girls is a significant challenge to gender equality and reveals deep inequities. These are amplified in times of socio-economic, political, and environmental crisis which are characterized by breakdowns in health systems, lack of information, and increased risk of unintended pregnancy often resulting in cases of unsafe abortion and forced continuation of pregnancy.

The systematic denial of timely access to safe abortion services is discriminatory and reflects a gendered power struggle involving the instrumentalization of women's bodies aimed at subjecting them to a patriarchal agenda. Patriarchal oppression is not specific to any country or region: it is universal. Colonialism has perpetuated the patriarchal control and oppression of societies, especially the control of women's sexuality. In many instances restrictions and criminal bans on abortion across countries in the Global South are colonial legacies more generally linked to political agendas of oppression and control put in place by European colonial regimes in the form of specific laws, including restrictions on abortion which remain on the books today in formerly colonized countries. Indeed, in contrast to the popular narrative that the advancement of sexual rights and abortion rights internationally are modern forms of "colonization" by the West, in fact State-sponsored restrictions on women's rights to bodily autonomy are a more precise legacy of colonial rule. A de-colonial approach would refuse the instrumentalist terms of this debate altogether, calling for full access to reproductive and sexual health-based services as a fundamental human right in and of itself, rather than as a means to an end determined by State priorities.

Unfortunately, restrictions and bans are not a thing of the past. Despite overwhelming evidence showing the futility of restrictions and bans in stopping abortions, and the harms caused, political actors in different parts of the world have been using their power to deny women and girls their constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.

Religious fundamentalists and their political allies have led an organized and well- funded global political backlash against gender equality by invoking religious freedom and traditional values and abortion has been placed at its center. This backlash, in particular against those who require abortions and those healthcare providers who are abortion providers, is being propelled by some Governments who continue to challenge the universality of human rights in global political spaces, including at the Human Rights Council, as well as locally. This is central to our concern about the neglect and deprioritization of the sexual and reproductive health rights of women on the one hand and its excessive politicization on the other. We would like to seize this opportunity to hail the work of women's rights activists and movements who have fought hard to defend these rights and continue to drive the progress achieved thus far in many countries and globally.

Abortion is essential health care and must be taken out of the realm of politics. The right to access safe abortion services must be codified in law in accordance with human rights standards that require ensuring the availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability and quality of abortion services, free and informed decision-making and adequate financial investment. All branches of government, office bearers and political actors are duty bound to fulfill these obligations. Those serving in a legislative, executive or a judicial capacity must not be complicit in violating human rights. Neither ideology nor exceptionalism can justify an abuse of power or acts of regression.

*UN experts: Melissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health ; Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Kindly note that the signature, for ease of reference, is as follows: Elina Steinerte (Chair-Rapporteur), Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Vice-chairperson), Leigh Toomey, Mumba Malila, Priya Gopalan, Working Group on arbitrary detention.