Barriers to Abortion

As IAW main representative to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, I went to a side event on Barriers to Abortion, on september 18,
In Geneva. It was organized by The International Women’s Health Coalition. This Coalition ( advances the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and young people, particularly adolescent girls in Africa, Asia, Latin-America and the Middle East.
The good news is that in the last twenty years there is a global trend toward the liberalization of abortion laws. The latest example is Ireland.
But that is not good enough. There are still barriers, even where abortion is legal. Administrative procedures, a legal waiting time (like in the Netherlands: 5 days) and worst of all the “conscientious objection”of health care professionals. There are countries were 70 to 80 percent of medical staff refuse to provide abortion services, especialy in rural areas.
“Conscientious objection” was originally associated with the right to refuse to take part in military service on religious and moral grounds. But “conscientious objection”where the result is that health care is refused does just the opposite from refusing to kill; it leaves women to die from unsafe abortion or just bleeding to death after a miscarriage, or having an unwanted child when they themselves may be very young, ruining their prospects of education and decent work, social death.
By international human rights standards refusals of abortion care are not upheld. The European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights both have ruled that a state has the duty to guarantee women’s access to legal abortion services.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion protects “.everyone to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. The Court found repeatedly that:
“The word ‘ practice ‘in the sense of article 9 does not denote each and every act or form of behaviour motivated by a religion or a belief.”
The European Committee ruled that there is no obligation on state parties to the Social Charter to allow health care workers to refuse to provide abortion care on the grounds of conscience or religion. If a state chooses to allow medical professionals to refuse to provide abortion care, it must take effective measures to ensure that such refusals do not jeopardize women’s timely and effective access.

This is good news for anyone advocating for reproductive health and rights, like our good friend Gudrun Haupter

Gudrun Haupter, convener of the IAW Health commission comments:

My short assessment of the prospects of better access to abortion care in all countries according to international human rights standards is at best mixed.

Refusal by healthcare professionals on grounds of “conscientious objection” is wide-spread. The AGENDA EUROPE supporters led by ultraconservative forces in and beyond European countries are working on the roll-back of reproductive health legislation and its implementation. Their list of prohibition includes women’s and adolescents’ access to contraceptive options such as emergency contraception, one of the keys to lowering abortions rates.

After a period of relative openness following the ICPD politics of treating family planning as a taboo in development policies at national and international levels, is once again widely the norm.

Another alarm signal is the expected life-time nomination of one more conservative judge to the US Federal Constitutional Court. Brett Kavanaugh is said to be the first choice of conservative Evangelical Christians. The reason: they hope that he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade in order to uphold the dignity of all human life – the well-known position of all pro-life missionaries. These are known to spread their message all over the globe, partly with dubious methods.

Finally, I wish to mention that the implementation of women-friendly abortion laws still meets with many challenges, particularly – but not only – in rural areas. At the IAW board meeting in Lusaka some 20 years ago IAW-member Zambia Alliance of Women was complimented on the country’s liberal abortion legislation. We were told that women seeking an abortion faced disgracing conditions such as procedure performed on the bare floor, without even a blanket, no empathy of the medical personnel.

Gudrun Haupter, 20 September 2018

Convener of Commission on Health