Humanists at the UN have highlighted that many women continue to die from preventable causes in pregnancy and childbirth, and the world must do more to end this ongoing tragedy.
Ahead of International Safe Abortion day next week, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has called on states at the UN Human Rights Council to comply with their international obligations to prevent unsafe abortion, and ensure women and adolescents have access to contraception and reproductive health and rights services.
Discussing a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on maternal mortality and morbidity, IHEU Director of Advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, noted that one of the leading causes was lack of access to safe abortions and contraception.
She also pointed out that complications in pregnancy and childbirth is a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries.
Accordingly, she called for states to ensure the prevention of unsafe abortions, as well as urging them to stop tolerating early and forced marriage.
O’Casey also raised a concern about situations in which women cannot access a legal abortion where too many doctors have opted out of providing abortion services, usually on religious grounds. She pointed out that “states must organize their health systems to ensure that women are not prevented from accessing health services by professionals exercising conscientious objection.”
O’Casey’s statement follows in full below:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 39th Session (10th – 28th September 2018)
General Debate on Item 3
We thank the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for its follow-up report on a human rights-based approach to reducing preventable maternal mortality and morbidity.
Every day, roughly 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. The WHO is clear: “To avoid maternal deaths, it is […] vital to prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies. All women, including adolescents, need access to contraception [and] safe abortion services…”
In its General Comment 28, the Human Rights Committee emphasized state responsibility to reduce maternal mortality from clandestine abortions. Many states have laws that work in direct contradiction of this however: for example, laws resulting in the withholding of critical medical treatment for those having undergone illegal abortions.
The withholding of services also arises from practitioners refusing to provide a service on the grounds of religious belief or conscience. The human rights framework determines that states must organize their health systems to ensure that women are not prevented from accessing health services by professionals exercising conscientious objection.
States failing in their duties to provide access to safe abortion and contraception combined with the ongoing widespread practice of child marriage has meant complications in pregnancy and childbirth is a leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing countries. [One study has shown that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70% reduction in a country’s maternal mortality rate.]
As the report notes, criminalization of abortion, denial or delay of safe abortion and post-abortion care are all forms of is gender-based violence.
Next Friday is International Safe Abortion Day; we urge members of this Council who permit this kind of violence to reform their laws and practices with urgency.