Advocacy statements

Abortion, right to life and maternal mortality

  • Date / 2018
  • Relevant Institution / UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Item / Item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 39th Session (10th – 28th September 2018)

General Debate on Item 3

We thank the OHCHR for its follow-up report on a human rights-based approach to reducing preventable maternal mortality and morbidity.[1]

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.[2] [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.[3]]

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.[4]

Next Friday is International Safe Abortion Day; we urge members of this Council who permit this kind violence to reform their laws and practices with urgency.


[1] A/HRC/39/26: Follow-up on the application of the technical guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal mortality and morbidity

[2] http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/maternal-mortality

[3] https://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2013-05-13-high-rates-of-child-brides-and-maternal-and-infant-mortality.aspx

[4] A/HRC/39/26, para 33

Suggested academic reference

'Abortion, right to life and maternal mortality', Humanists International

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