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This International Women’s Day, U.S. anti-abortion laws violate human rights, groups say

U.S. and global human rights groups and others have asked the U.N. to intervene on behalf of the millions of women in the U.S.
Nearly 22 million women, girls and gender-nonconforming persons of reproductive age are now living in states where abortion has been banned or is in other ways inaccessible, a contingent of U.S. and global human rights groups noted in a letter to the U.N. | JENNIFER SHUTT/STATES NEWSROOM
March 9, 2023

Ahead of International Women’s Day, hundreds of U.S. and global human rights groups, doctors, and attorneys have asked the United Nations to intervene on behalf of the millions of women in the U.S. who have been left without access to legal abortion and vital forms of reproductive health care in the wake of last summer’s monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

 “Eight months on from this catastrophic legal decision, it is now apparent that the consequences are even worse than feared,” states a letter signed by nearly 200 rights and justice groups and individual health care providers and attorneys, which was first shared with The Guardian last week. “Women and girls in need of reproductive health care are being met with systematic refusals, huge financial burdens, stigma, fear of violence, and threats of criminalization. Thousands are being forced to remain pregnant against their will.”

 Addressing the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls and more than a dozen UN officials specializing in a wide range of human rights, the letter’s authors write that nearly 22 million women, girls and gender-nonconforming persons of reproductive age are now living in states where abortion has been banned or is in other ways inaccessible.

The more than 50-page letter – dense with devastating anecdotes from news articles and studies and doctor interviews – argues that the effects of Dobbs and the resulting state and local anti-abortion policies have compromised Americans’ rights to life, health, privacy, and liberty. The letter authors argue that the U.S. is violating various human rights treaties it has signed.  

 “These human rights obligations include, but are not limited to, the rights to: life; health; privacy; liberty and security of person; to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; equality and non-discrimination; and to seek, receive, and impart information,” the authors write. “The US has committed to respect and protect these rights; instead, it is infringing them through restrictions on abortion access.”

They ask the UN officials to make an official visit to the U.S. to witness these harms, to convene a virtual stakeholder meeting with U.S. civil society, and to call for private companies to take action to protect reproductive rights. They also call on the UN to ask the U.S. to comply with its obligations under international law.

“The Dobbs decision abandoned the constitutional right to abortion, violated U.S. legal obligations under treaties such as ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], and exposed the fact that Roe was never enough,” said Lauren Wranosky, research and program associate at Pregnancy Justice, one of the signatories, in a statement. “Many will continue to be jailed, convicted, and sentenced to prison for having abortions, experiencing pregnancy losses, or giving birth to healthy babies. This destroys families, inflicts trauma, and targets the most vulnerable by replacing healthcare with criminalization. We know this humanitarian crisis will only get worse, and we demand that the U.S. government join international peers as a leader in securing reproductive justice for all.”

 As the authors note, the end of federal abortion rights has led to 13 states criminalizing the procedure (with Georgia effectively outlawing the procedure with its six-week ban); dozens of clinic closures around the country; and increased travel times and delays for abortion care, even in situations when the pregnancy has become life-threatening. They write that the UN Human Rights Committee has already established that denial of abortion in other countries can cause suffering and amount to torture. 

And they stress that in the U.S., racial minorities and marginalized groups disproportionately face health and legal harms because of the policies enacted after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

 “Dobbs is devastating for all people who can become pregnant, but it has had and will have an outsized impact on certain marginalized groups who already face documented discrimination within and outside the healthcare system,” the authors write. “This includes BIPOC women, people of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations, migrants, persons with disabilities, people who are low-income or living in poverty, children, and rural residents. These groups often have poorer health outcomes compared to other populations, Dobbs will worsen these disparities, since individuals who belong to these groups have fewer resources and face discrimination from the healthcare community.”

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