Abortion Is A Human Right, Says United Nations Human Rights Committee

It's not just about the fetus. It's about the mother too.
by Stephanie Shi
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The United Nations Human Rights Committee officially reaffirms that abortion is a human right.

In 2005, the Committee held Peru's government accountable for failing to ensure access to safe and legal abortion services, even when the procedure is legal when the mother's life is at risk. According to them, Peru had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights when the country's hospitals refused to perform a safe abortion on KL, a 17-year-old who was carrying an anencephalic fetus for three months. An anencephalic fetus is incapable of fully developing a brain, a skull, and scalp, and has no chance of surviving. Continuing with her pregnancy meant she was at high risk of maternal complications. Think longer labors and more difficult deliveries. Think of the stress on a mother's mental health with her knowing the baby will die in a matter of days after birth, as in the case of KL. She had called it an "extended funeral" made more emotionally difficult from seeing her baby's deformities and zero chances of living on. The experience plunged KL into depression.

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The UN Committee then had Peru give financial compensation to KL. More than a decade later, Peru just last week finally paid the price for its "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment." It also ordered Peru to make sure similar situations will not happen again in the future.

"As groundbreaking as this win was," states Lilian Sepulveda, director of the global reproductive rights organization Center for Reproductive Rights and the attorney who brought KL's case to the UN, "successes like these do not stand on their own. In order to make a difference for our client and women facing similar situations, concrete implementation of the decision is absolutely essential."

Apart from being groundbreaking, UN's ruling is especially important and relevant to developing countries like the Philippines where 473,000 abortions occur every year.

In the country, there are about 715,000 cases of unintended pregnancy, and a third of women who have unintended pregnancies end them in abortion. This is based on the research and data (published in 2006) of the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to advance and promote reproductive health. The Institute also reports that majority of the women who have an abortion are married, Catholic, and poor. Seventy-two percent of women had it because they couldn't afford to raise another child; 54 percent say they already have a lot of children; and 57 percent had it because they got pregnant too soon after their last one.

Because abortion in the Philippines will have no criminal implications* only when it's for saving the woman's life, women who don't have life-threatening reasons to undergo the procedure have it in unsafe circumstances.

According to the 2006 Guttmacher data, more than eight in 10 women who make a single attempt to end a pregnancy spend less than P100 (about US$2), making it clear that many women resort to methods that are affordable. Ingesting plant concoctions, hitting or painfully massaging the belly, or inserting hangers or brooms in the vagina can lead to serious health consequences and life-threatening complications that can keep these women from school or work. Those procedures may not be expensive, but treating the resulting hemorrhage, sepsis, pierced uterus, and other damaged organs is.

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A report done by the Center of Reproductive Rights in 2010 states that most of the women they interviewed have resorted to abortion more than once and have tried more than one risky method every single time. And each unsafe attempt increases the risk to her life. At least 800 women die from the complications every year.

A number of issues arise from the illegality of abortion in the Philippines. Medical professionals who know how to perform safe abortions (which entail vacuum aspiration, among other things) don't want to do it on someone with no life-threatening pregnancy because they can face six years in jail. The health of so many women are compromised because they seek doctors or midwives who are willing to do an abortion but don’t have the proper training and equipment, or worse, they seek traditional healers or street vendors.

The lack of access to more modern contraception aggravates the issue of abortion all the more, since [the proper usage of] contraceptives, as well as proper sex education, do prevent unintended pregnancies. Cases of abortions would have been reduced nearly by half if women were on an effective family planning method and if they were even taught one.

While our own Reproductive Health Law mandates making contraceptives more accessible, the Department of Health's proposed one billion peso budget for contraceptives was cut last month and will no longer be in the 2016 budget.

And in spite of our RH Law that ensures proper and humane post-abortive care to women, in May 2015 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN CEDAW) charged the Philippine government for violating women's rights by denying a full range of reproductive health services to thousands of women.

CEDAW criticized the government for "failing to prioritize women's human rights over religious ideology and cultural stereotypes, which has led to widespread discrimination against women and hindered access to sexual and reproductive health information and services." It's also calling for the decriminalization of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, when the health or life of the woman is at risk, and for severe fetal impairments.

As the country has seen over the years, the criminalization of abortion in all cases does not prevent people from having the procedure; it just makes the abortion unsafe.

Apart from that, women are discouraged from seeking safe procedures and treatment from serious post-abortion complications when people condemn them for going through an abortion regardless of their reason.

"Women in the Philippines deserve to live with dignity and this can only be achieved by ensuring their sexual and reproductive rights," says Melissa Upreti, the regional director of Center for Reproductive Rights for Asia. No one in the right mind will contest that statement. But criminalizing abortion in all cases goes against Upreti's words, and stereotyping women who want an abortion puts them in an undignifying prison cell all the same.

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* Still, there are no explicit exceptions that legalize abortion in the Philippine Constitution.

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