Do U.S. Abortion Restrictions Violate Human Rights?

In a hospital in Nicaragua, after a total ban on abortion was passed, a woman with an ectopic pregnancy was allowed to languish, waiting for her fallopian tube to rupture before a doctor agreed to perform the procedure necessary to save her life and future fertility. Even though there was no doubt to the outcome of her pregnancy, the doctor refused to operate until the fetus was certifiably dead, and with no ultrasound available in that rural hospital, there was only one way to make sure.

This is the world that Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) would like to bring to America with the passage of H.R. 358, the so-called "Protect Life Act," a bill that would deny pregnant women access to emergency treatment, insurance coverage for abortion services and even information about how she could pay for an abortion. It's bad enough that one member of Congress would be willing to put women's lives at risk this way; that a majority of the House of Representatives voted for it is appalling.

While in the United States we may treat abortion restrictions as a political issue, elsewhere around the world, advocates and experts understand such restrictions to be public health and human rights issues. And in the United States this year, we have seen law after law passed that clearly violates international human rights standards.

Contrast Pitts' legislation with the report on legal restrictions on aspects of sexual and reproductive health presented to the United Nations on Monday by Anand Grover, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Health. The report states,

"Realization of the right to health requires the removal of barriers that interfere with individual decision-making on health-related issues and with access to health services, education and information, in particular on health conditions that only affect women and girls."

Indeed, the report highlights the growing global trend towards decriminalizing abortion. Everywhere, that is, except in the United States. In my home state of North Carolina this year, we have passed a number of barriers that "interfere with individual decision-making" on reproductive health: a mandatory waiting period, mandatory and biased counseling, and a forced ultrasound, all solely intended to place barriers and shame women who seek abortions, even if she has been raped or her life is in danger.

Just in the first half of this year, states enacted some 80 measures to restrict access to abortion (more than double the previous record set in 2005 of 34), all of which seem to violate the human rights standards set in international agreements. They include extreme restrictions, such as the one in Ohio that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected (six to 10 weeks' gestation). Several states, including Kansas, Tennessee and North Dakota have banned the use of telemedicine (key to delivering health services to underserved rural areas) for dispensing medical abortion. In Mississippi, a state ballot initiative, if passed, would mandate personhood from the moment of fertilization, possibly outlawing the most popular forms of contraception. Bearing in mind that 99 percent of American women have used contraception during in their lifetimes, this law would result in the violation of the rights of millions of American women.

Grover's report was developed following a thorough review of health research, national laws, international agreements and opinions and rulings issued by human rights bodies -- although it reads as if it were written about the United States:

"These laws make safe abortions and post-abortion care unavailable, especially to poor, displaced and young women. Such restrictive regimes, which are not replicated in other areas of sexual and reproductive health care, serve to reinforce the stigma that abortion is an objectionable practice."

In the United States, there have been laws on the books for decades that specifically deny young and low-income women access to abortion. Parental consent laws force young women to seek their parents' permission to have an abortion, regardless of their home situation. (Studies have shown that most teens will consult with a parent before deciding to terminate a pregnancy, but even those who risk violence or homelessness are still forced to produce at least one parents' consent.) And the Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, explicitly isolating one health care procedure for purely political reasons.

Amnesty International has created an international campaign to raise awareness about the toll the total ban on abortion is taking on women in Nicaragua. Is it time to create one for women in the United States?