The UN human rights chief has termed the US Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to abortion as a ‘huge blow’ to women’s human rights and gender equality, as UN agencies warned that restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking it but simply makes it ‘more deadly.’
In the historic ruling on Friday, the US Supreme Court decided by six votes to three to overturn the 50-year-old Roe v Wade judgement that guaranteed access to abortion across the country.
The decision means that all questions of legality and access to abortion will now go to America’s individual states, some of whom immediately put abortion bans into place.
“The US Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation delivered today represents a major setback after five decades of protection for sexual and reproductive health and rights in the US through Roe v Wade. It is a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday.
She said access to safe, legal and effective abortion is firmly rooted in the international human rights law and is at the core of women and girls’ autonomy and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion.
“This decision strips such autonomy from millions of women in the US, in particular those with low incomes and those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, to the detriment of their fundamental rights. More than 50 countries with previously restrictive laws have liberalized their abortion legislation over the past 25 years. With today’s ruling, the US is regrettably moving away from this progressive trend,” she said.
The World Health Organisation tweeted that every year over 25 million unsafe abortions take place and up to 37,000 women die. It warned that evidence shows that restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions that occur. Restrictions are, however, more likely to drive women and girls towards unsafe procedures.
“Safe abortion care is essential to protect the health of women and girls everywhere. Removing access to #abortion care will put more women & girls at risk of illegal abortions and the consequent safety issues that would bring,” the WHO said.
The UN agency on women empowerment and gender equality UN Women said in a statement that reproductive rights are integral to women’s rights, a fact that is upheld by international agreements and reflected in law in different parts of the world.
“To be able to exercise their human rights and make essential decisions, women need to be able to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to information, education, and services,” it said.
The UN Women added that when safe and legal access to abortion is restricted, women are forced to resort to less-safe methods, too often with damaging or disastrous results — especially for women who are affected by poverty or marginalisation, including minority women.
“The ability of women to control what happens to their own bodies is also associated with the roles women are able to play in society, whether as a member of the family, the workforce, or government,” the UN Women said.
“The UN Women remains steadfast in our determination to ensure that the rights of women and girls are fully observed and enjoyed worldwide, and we look forward to continued evidence-based engagement with our partners everywhere in support of rapid progress towards universal enjoyment of universal rights,” it added.
The United Nations Population Fund, citing its 2022 State of the World Population Report, said that nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and over 60 per cent of these unintended pregnancies may end in abortion.
“A staggering 45 per cent of all abortions around the world are unsafe, making this a leading cause of maternal death. Almost all unsafe abortions currently occur in developing countries, and UNFPA fears that more unsafe abortions will occur around the world if access to abortion becomes more restricted. Decisions reversing progress gained have a wider impact on the rights and choices of women and adolescents everywhere.”
“Whether abortion is legal or not, it happens all too often. Data show that restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking an abortion, it simply makes it more deadly,” it said.
The 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, signed by 179 countries including the United States, recognized how deadly unsafe abortions are and urged all countries to provide post-abortion care to save lives, irrespective of the legal status of abortion.
It also highlighted that all people should be able to access quality information about their reproductive health and contraceptives.
It added that as the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency and the custodian of the ICPD, UNFPA advocates for the right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 3 related to maternal health, to which all UN Member States have committed, are at risk of not being met if unsafe abortions continue.
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