The statement was delivered during the General Debate of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council and was supported and signed by a total of 354 organizations and 643 individuals.
States are ignoring their duties to ensure abortion access during COVID-19
The failure of a State to ensure access to safe abortion and reproductive health services, including through the criminalization of abortion itself, is a major human rights issue. This has long been a focus of Humanists International in its advocacy and writing. In the joint statement, Humanists International and its co-signatories noted with concern that women and girls’ rights to bodily autonomy and safe abortion have been some of the first rights to be sacrificed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some governments (and states in the U.S.A.) have deemed abortion a non-essential medical procedure, whilst others have sought to making lasting changes to restrict access to abortion in law and practice. Many others are simply remaining silent on the need to prioritise and reallocate resources towards abortion services during this time. In all these ways and more, States are ignoring the positive obligations they have under human rights treaties to prevent unsafe abortions and to ensure access to critical sexual and reproductive health services.
The joint statement called for the removal of all legal, administrative and social barriers to safe abortion, including by improving post-pandemic accessibility to telemedicine, medical and self-managed abortion. As countries such as France and Ireland have proven, remote consultations and home-use of medical abortion pills are an effective and acceptable way of carrying out abortions, within a certain timeframe.
The statement looked beyond the immediate crisis to address forms of neo-liberal, patriarchal, racist and ableist power structures exercising an outsized influence over global health systems. It urged States to pivot towards an intersectional and rights-based approach to reproductive justice, by strengthening and financing public health systems through taxation and by halting the erosion of women’s right to healthcare through austerity and privatization measures.
While all these forms of systematic oppression existed pre-COVID-19, as the statement highlighted, they cannot and should not be part of an effective response and recovery to the pandemic. The statement ended by calling for the meaningful participation from “local feminist movements, women human rights defenders and young women and gender non-conforming people” in reshaping reproductive health systems in a post-COVID world.
“Brave Sisters”: A project from the Center for Civil Courage
One such local feminist organization who, during COVID-19, has initiated a project to support women in their decision to have an abortion is Humanists International’s member in Croatia, the Center for Civil Courage. On the same day that Humanists International’s statement was delivered, the Center for Civil Courage launched its own “Brave Sisters” project.
As Nada Peratovic, co-founder of the Center for Civil Courage, explains:
“On paper, abortion has been legal in Croatia for decades. However, in practice, it is becoming less accessible because of the growing “pro-life” movement and religious pressures which are increasingly pushing doctors to refuse abortions on moral grounds. From priests, to politicians, to ordinary citizens – stigma about abortion is everywhere and it is poisoning our society. For example, in the most famous clinic for women’s health in the capital city of Zagreb, 40 out of 45 doctors do not perform abortions, and in Split – the second biggest city in Croatia – 32 out of 34 gynecologists opt-out.”
To counter the widespread stigma against abortion, the Brave Sisters project will establish a network in Croatia to provide support and guidance to women with unwanted pregnancies. Members of the Brave Sisters will accompany women to hospital appointments and in conversations with doctors and will offer guidance to women whose minds are made up about getting an abortion, but who feel uncomfortable following through with their decision due to the taboo around abortion. Their primary aim is to get the message across that, despite hostile messaging and attacks from religious groups, deciding to terminate a pregnancy is not a morally wrong act.