Campaign Alert: #AbortionStigma & Restrictive Abortion Laws

Abortion stigma operates at many levels of a given society, predominantly drawing its strength from gender stereotypes, particularly those ascribing women to the role of motherhood.[1] One of the main ways abortion stigma plays out at the legal or policy level is in the justification of restrictive laws and/or the criminalization of abortion, in some cases upholding complete bans of abortion under all circumstances,[2] resulting in major and deplorable human rights violations.

States that uphold restrictive laws criminalizing abortion commit human rights violations in two ways. Firstly, as stipulated in the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), discrimination against women definitively includes laws that have either the “effect” or “purpose” of preventing a woman from exercising any of her human rights or fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.[3] As such, laws that are based on gender stereotypes and assign traditional roles to women, such as those which criminalize abortion, violate women’s right to be free from gender bias and discrimination, and go against States’ commitments to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.[4][5]

Secondly, States that maintain restrictive laws also subject countless numbers of persons to grave human rights violations, through the existence and application of those laws. As noted by international human rights bodies such as the Committee Against Torture, forcing individuals to carry unwanted pregnancies, even in cases where it is the result of rape or is a threat to their health and life, equals the act of torture, and violates women’s right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.[6]  The criminalization of abortion, moreover, pushes individuals to resort to unsafe abortion services, where individuals are forced to compromise their health and often risk their lives,[7] thereby violating their rights to life, health, and physical and psychological integrity.[8]

Young, poor, unmarried and other women living in vulnerable situations are disproportionally affected by the criminalisation of abortion. When they terminate a pregnancy they do it in much higher risk situations than women who are able to access and afford private healthcare services, and are also at greater risk of being reported by public healthcare providers to the authorities, highlighting the impact of restrictive abortion laws in perpetuating social injustice and inequality.

No country illustrates the dire consequences of the complete criminalization of abortion as does El Salvador, home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws worldwide.[9] As recently noted by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the complete ban on abortion in El Salvador has led to “serious cases of suffering and injustice,” allowing for women to be prosecuted for pregnancy losses under any circumstance, and particularly affecting women of lower socioeconomic status.[10] Such is the case of “Las 17” in El Salvador, 17 women who, upon accessing public healthcare facilities as a result of miscarriages, stillbirths, or other life-threatening obstetrical complications, were accused of having undergone an abortion, and were immediately handed over to local authorities. All 17 women were charged with aggravated homicide, and received prison sentences of up to 40 years. Within the context of extreme social stigma surrounding abortion, all of these women were presumed guilty rather than innocent, were refused a standard of reasonable doubt, and were denied their rights to due process.[11][12]

Access to safe and legal abortion is a HUMAN RIGHT. When States criminalize abortion and deny access to safe abortion services, they endorse, tolerate, and perpetuate institutional violence against women.

As part of their international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, States must amend their abortion laws with women’s fundamental rights, including their right to health, dignity and bodily autonomy. This September 28, join us in calling on governments to speak out against abortion stigma and decriminalize abortion, removing all legal and implementation barriers to ensure access to safe, comprehensive, free and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination.


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