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Rebecca Oas, Ph.D.

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UN disability committee: Abortion ‘prerequisite’ for ‘safeguarding women’s human rights’

Rebecca Oas, Ph.D.

September 13, 2018 (C-Fam) – Last week, two UN committees monitoring compliance with human rights treaties issued a joint statement declaring that access to "safe and legal abortion" is not only essential to women's health, but also a "prerequisite for safeguarding women's human rights" more generally.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) monitor compliance with their respective human rights treaties by nations who have ratified them. Neither treaty, nor any other global human rights treaty, mentions abortion explicitly, but for decades, treaty monitoring bodies have exerted nonbinding pressure on UN member states to liberalize their abortion laws.

While critics of these treaty bodies have accused them of exceeding their mandates, meaningful reform has been slow in coming. Meanwhile, their observations promoting abortion as a right have been cited by abortion advocacy groups as proof that such a right exists, and even cited by national courts as a justification for changing their laws, as in the case of Colombia and Argentina.

That the committees on the rights of women and persons with disabilities joined together to issue the statement was notable, as there have recently been disputes between UN human rights experts as to whether a prenatal diagnosis of a disability should be considered as a justification for abortion in law. Earlier this year, an event at the UN highlighted the "prenatal genocide" of children with Down Syndrome by abortion.

Theresia Degener, the chairperson of the CRPD, insisted that disability rights and women's rights are not in conflict, and condemned pro-life arguments that abortion should be restricted to protect the lives of disabled children. "This constitutes a misinterpretation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."

Instead, she argued, efforts should be made to ensure that women with disabilities have access to "sexual and reproductive health" care, including abortion, adding that they should also be protected from forced abortion or sterilization.

The two committees warned against "[r]ollback and regression on respect for international human rights norms," before immediately narrowing their focus to abortion. In contrast, pro-life advocates have argued that UN treaty bodies have for decades overreached their mandates and attempted to redefine international human rights norms with impunity, against the consensus of UN member states, which have defined abortion as a matter for national, not international, lawmaking.

International abortion advocates have expressed heightened concerns about the "backlash" against abortion, led by increasingly effective lobbying by pro-life networks at the global and regional level, as well as the United States' adoption of a pro-life foreign policy position under President Donald Trump.

The U.S. has not ratified either CEDAW or CRPD, and therefore does not receive periodic recommendations from their monitoring bodies, but the CEDAW Committee has pressured its signatories on abortion a total of 243 times since 1999. This trend has continually increased, with three quarters of countries reviewed in 2017 being told to change their abortion laws.

In 2012, the U.S. Senate considered ratifying CRPD, but ultimately did not in part due to advocacy by pro-life and pro-family organizations. C-Fam's Vice President and Director of Research Dr. Susan Yoshihara's testimony warned against the U.S. coming under the purview of another UN expert committee: "Treaty bodies have ignored the agreement of nations…that regulation of abortion laws is the prerogative of sovereign states."

Published with permission from C-Fam.

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