United States: UN experts denounce further attacks against right to safe abortion and Supreme Court complicity

14 September 2021
GENEVA (14 September 2021) – UN human rights experts* today denounced a recently enacted law that effectively bans abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy and includes an unprecedented provision that encourages private individuals to file lawsuits against those involved in abortion procedures.
“This law is alarming. It bans abortion before many women even know they are pregnant” the experts said. The law contains no exception for pregnancies that result from rape or incest, or for foetal health conditions that are incompatible with sustained life after birth. The only exception is for a medical emergency.
Texas State Senate Bill 8 (S.B. 8), which was signed by Texas Governor on 19 May and entered into force on 1 September 2021, will cause severe harm to pregnant women in Texas who seek abortion considering that approximately 90% of women who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks pregnant. “Nearly all abortions are now prohibited in a state where abortion was already extremely difficult to access” the experts said.
About 96% of Texas counties lack a clinic that provides abortion care and patients face countless barriers to terminate a pregnancy. This recent law is the latest in a series of numerous attempts by the Texas state legislature to severely restrict access to safe and legal abortion. It epitomizes a series of retrogressions in the United States on the right to abortion notwithstanding constitutional recognition of that right. This year alone state legislatures in the United States have enacted a historic number of highly restrictive abortion laws and bans on abortion services, including those that impose criminal penalties on pregnant women and abortion providers.
“The law will have a particularly devastating impact on women from marginalised communities. Women with low incomes, women living in rural areas, and women from racial and ethnic minorities as well as immigrant women will be disproportionately affected by this ban,” the experts said, adding that this law is simply a blatant attack against women in situations of poverty as those with the means will be able to terminate their pregnancy in another state.
The law effectively makes abortion care unavailable to pregnant women who cannot afford to travel outside the state of Texas, where the poverty rate for Black women and women of Latino American descent is high. These women, who already face substantial barriers to accessing reproductive health care because of systemic gender-based discrimination and racism, will struggle to overcome the tremendous financial and logistical hurdles of seeking care outside of Texas. They may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, including those resulting from rape or incest, exacerbating their trauma as well as their mental and physical suffering, thereby subjecting them to additional psychological forms of violence. Black women will disproportionately suffer the gravest consequences of forced pregnancy as they already experience significantly higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity than white women in the entire country.
“Restrictive laws on abortion increase maternal mortality and morbidity rates due to unsafe abortions and are not effective in reducing the incidence of abortion”, they said.
“We deeply regret that, on 1 September, the Supreme Court denied the emergency request filed by several organization and failed in stopping this extremely retrogressive law from taking effect.” the experts said. The case will now continue before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We urge relevant judicial authorities to halt the implementation of this law which violates women’s fundamental human rights and generates a climate of stigma and fear through the provision which deputizes its enforcement to private parties and may potentially incite violence against those who aid or facilitate the access of a pregnant woman to abortion” the experts said. With the passage of the Texas law, the United States stands in violation of international law. Legal restrictions on abortion such as those contained in Texas S.B. 8 violate the rights of pregnant women to life, health (including sexual and reproductive health), privacy, bodily integrity, equality and non-discrimination, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment as well as gender-based violence”, they said.
“We urge the Government to prevent retrogression in access to abortion in the United States and instead enact positive measures to ensure access to safe and legal abortion” the experts stated. “We fear that, without adherence to the legal precedents that constitutionally protect women’s right to abortion and clear political will to reverse such restrictive and regressive trends, states will continue pursuing this pattern” adding that the influence of ideologically and religiously motivated interference in public health matters has been particularly detrimental to the health and well-being of women and girls.
While the experts are committed to upholding freedom of religion or belief as human rights to be protected, they regret the increasing challenges to gender equality in the name of religion and through its misuse. Freedom of religion or belief cannot justify discrimination against women.
Following its official country visit, the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls regretted that throughout the years, women in the United States have seen their rights to sexual and reproductive health significantly eroded since the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. The United States, which was a leading State in terms of promoting international human rights standards, is allowing women in the country to lag behind. While all women are victims of these “missing” rights, women living in poverty (in particular women from racial and ethnic minorities and migrant women) are subjected to heightened levels of systemic discrimination.
“We are encouraged by the recent stance of the Federal administration and some Supreme Court judges against the Texas abortion ban, reasserting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. We hope that such actions will be sustained and successful,” the experts concluded. Women’s human rights are fundamental rights that cannot be subordinated to cultural, religious or political considerations.
*The experts: The Working Group on discrimination against women and girlsMelissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth BroderickIvana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset TechaneTlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Reem AlsalemSpecial Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequencesElina Steinerte (Chair-Rapporteur), Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Vice-chairperson), Leigh Toomey, Mumba Malila, Priya Gopalan, Working Group on arbitrary detention
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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