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US Abortion Restrictions Violate Women’s Human Rights


In August, 2017, more than half a million Rohingya refugees flooded across the border from Burma to Bangladesh to escape violence in Rakhine State, including pregnant women and children. The United States gave about $28 million in food and other goods, but the government’s global gag rule banned family planning aid, violating women’s rights, say the authors. ASHIQUE RUSHDI/USAID

Every year, 25 million women across the world are forced to obtain unsafe abortions. The United States, through its foreign policy, is deeply complicit in the violation of these women’s right to life and equality under international law.

International human-rights frameworks guard against these violations and hold the US and other countries accountable. The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), for instance, details the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people worldwide, including the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to equality. Such rights are not symbolic: they are grounded in the dignity of each human being and protected by international law.

Since 1966, 172 parties — including the US — have signed the ICCPR. It is one of the few human-rights treaties that the US has ratified. But today, the US imposes illegal abortion policies that brazenly violated its obligations under the Covenant and other binding provisions of international law.

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The ICCPR spells out the right to access abortion services and safeguards against censorship. It also protects the right to nondiscrimination under Article 3; the right to life under Article 6; the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 7; and the right to free speech and association in Articles 19 and 22.

US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, including the global gag rule and Helms and Siljander amendments, breach these fundamental obligations.

The global gag rule prohibits non-U.S. organizations from receiving global health assistance funding if they advocate around, provide, educate or counsel on abortion services as a method of family planning — even though these organizations use non-U.S. funds to do so. First enacted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the policy has been rescinded and reinstated along party lines with each presidential administration. The impact of the rule in the relevant countries is compounded by each iteration of the policy.

The Helms Amendment (in place since 1973, as a reaction to Roe v. Wade) prohibits any foreign assistance from being used for using abortion as a method of family planning. The Siljander Amendment (in place since 1981) prohibits the use of funds for lobbying for or against abortion.

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By restricting women’s abortion access, these laws and policies violate their right to life by forcing them to obtain the procedure in unsafe ways. They also threaten women’s access to health care more generally, because many non-U.S. organizations receiving global health assistance are forced to cut services or close.

The global gag rule stifles the speech of doctors and other health care providers, preventing them from informing their patients of all the medical options available to them. This censorship worsens stigma, particularly for individuals living with HIV and AIDS, sex workers, members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

We must hold our leaders accountable to the human-rights framework that the US and 171 other parties have agreed upon. As state parties prepare for the UN Human Rights Committee meeting on March 25, when they will report on the implementation of the ICCPR, we urge them to insist on access to safe abortion as a right.

The history of the US disregarding international human-rights standards should not be accepted as the status quo. As attacks on women’s rights escalate worldwide, it is more critical than ever that we take the US to task on standards it has promised to adhere to as a law-abiding country.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Serra Sippel is president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), and Akila Radhakrishnan is president of the Global Justice Center.

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US Abortion Restrictions Violate Women’s Human Rights
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