Women’s and girls’ reproductive choices must be respected, UN experts say

OHCHR

World Contraception Day, 26 September 2022

International Safe Abortion Day, 28 September 2022

GENEVA (23 September 2022) – States must ensure the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health for all, including the right to sexual and reproductive health, without discrimination, as well as access to contraceptives, UN experts said. The autonomous decision-making of women and girls must be respected.

Ahead of the World Contraception Day on 26 September and the International Safe Abortion Day on 28 September, the experts* issued the following statement:

“The world has been experiencing promising developments but also important setbacks affecting the right to sexual and reproductive health, including on the right to a safe abortion. Human rights law stipulates that women must be free to decide when to be pregnant, how many children to have, and how to space pregnancies. The full enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health rights is indispensable to women’s and girls’ ability to exercise all other human rights and for the achievement of gender equality. Laws and policies that deny women and girls their sexual and reproductive health rights are inherently discriminatory.

The setbacks experienced during the last years, including legal restrictions on contraceptives, on ideological grounds, together with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, have had negative effects on those in vulnerable situations or those historically subjected to discrimination, in particular girls, Black and Afro-descent women, indigenous women, migrant, refugee and internally displaced women, women living in rural areas, women with disabilities, LBTI women and gender-diverse persons and communities, and women living in a persistent state of crisis, among others.

It is crucial to ensure that all women and girls, in all of their diversity and without any discrimination, have adequate access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of contraception of their choice, including modern short-and long-acting contraceptives and other methods such as emergency contraception, as well as any other method to avoid forced pregnancies. In doing so, States should respect the capacity of women and girls for autonomous decision-making and not limit the access to contraceptives to the obtention of the authorisation of husbands, partners or parents of girls1 seeking counselling on contraceptives. Further, sexual and reproductive health strategies should take into account the needs of lesbian and bisexual women, trans men, and all gender diverse persons for whom they are relevant. States should redouble their efforts to dismantle all the practical barriers due to the lack of official regulations such as conscientious objection and the imposition of a spousal consent requirement, even when not required by law. By virtue of their due diligence obligation, States are responsible for any acts, including acts of omission that violate these fundamental rights by State and non-State actors. These obligations include the duty to investigate, prosecute and punish such acts.

According to the World Health Organization, between 14,000 and 39,000 maternal deaths per year are caused by the failure to provide safe abortion.2 If a decisive step is to be made towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality and health and well-being, in particular those aimed at ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights and reducing maternal mortality, it is of paramount importance to prevent unwanted pregnancies through access to contraception, safe abortion services and quality post-abortion care. Women and girls should not be instrumentalised to serve fundamentalist ideologies and populist agendas. Religion and culture should not be misused to discriminate against and further oppress women and girls in a global context of severe backlashes against gender equality. Such access should happen in regular as well as humanitarian settings.

On World Contraception Day and International Safe Abortion Day, we call on States and their institutions to prioritise sexual and reproductive health rights, to adopt legislations, policies and decisions that ensure to women and girls, the full exercise of their right to access sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion without fear of being intimidated, stigmatised or criminalised – in line with their international human rights obligations.

We commend the positive steps taken in some countries relating to the constitutional recognition of sexual and reproductive rights and encourage States to follow such promising practices. We also call on States and other stakeholders to ensure women and girls’ participation in decision making and to act at different levels, including the national health system and community levels, to ensure that the right of all women and girls on their territory, without discrimination based on race, religion, or nationality – amongst others, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including the sexual and reproductive health rights – are fully respected. We hope that States will duly implement the pivotal WHO guidelines on abortion care issued earlier this year.”

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