Last week, the issue of reproductive rights received attention from the international community as well as something new - support. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announced that reproductive choice is a human right and that, in order to exercise that right, people in every country need access to high quality services. This is the first time that the UN has agreed that reproductive choice is a human right, which makes this announcement truly a landmark for international women’s rights organizations and for women all over the world.
The UNFPA announcement stated that reproductive choice is necessary because it saves women’s lives. This statement would no doubt be supported by nearly all reproductive rights and reproductive justice advocates/organizations in the world; however, UNFPA’s statement is narrower than one might glean at first glance.
The international community is only in support of “voluntary family planning,” a term of art that does not include the right to access abortions. In fact, UNFPA specifically states that it does not support or promote abortion as a method of family planning. But the lack of access to safe abortion services has devastating consequences for women, as shown last week by the death of Savita Halappanavar. Savita, an Indian woman living in Ireland, died of blood poisoning after being refused an abortion, even though she was already miscarrying, because Ireland is a Catholic country with very strict restrictions on the availability of abortions.
UNFPA only supports “voluntary family planning” that would prevent the need for abortions, which includes oral contraceptives, injectable contraceptives, and male and female condoms. Additionally, the announcement supports medical efforts to relieve the adverse consequences that might result from unsafe abortions. Unfortunately, the statement does not support practices that would help women, like Savita, that need or want access to safe abortions.
This announcement by the United Nations did not create a law, meaning that there is no legal penalty for governments that do not agree with or adopt the policies in this statement, nor does the statement effectively increase funding for governments to put these practices into place so that families experiencing poverty can have access to reproductive choice and family planning. However, the UN acknowledging the need for family planning and healthcare for women is a huge step for international reproductive rights and a good start for moving towards access to family planning, abortions, healthcare, and choice for women and families all over the world.
Beth Leonard is a third year law student at Seattle University and current Legal Voice intern.