In a letter made public in August, United Nations human rights experts raised alarm at efforts by several U.S. states to restrict abortion access during the COVID-19 pandemic and reiterated that human rights protect access to abortion. The letter sparked a harsh rebuke from the United States. But try as it might, the Trump administration can neither hide from the facts, nor unilaterally rewrite human rights law to fit its ideological agenda.
Using COVID-19 to further restrict access to abortion in the United States violates human rights, is “inherently discriminatory,” and exacerbates systemic inequalities, the U.N. human rights experts wrote. The experts, including the U.N. Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, and the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, called out government officials’ efforts to manipulate the COVID-19 crisis to restrict access to abortion in U.S. states including Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.
The Trump administration, through the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva, wasted no time attempting to discredit the experts and stifle their independence. It dismissed their concerns as “bizarre” and “spurious” and disavowed that human rights protect access to abortion.
Pattern of Retrogression on Abortion Access
The pandemic — and government responses to it — have exacerbated and deepened inequities in access to reproductive health care across the United States. In the days and weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak, government orders in several states forced clinics providing abortion care to turn away hundreds of patients, many of whom had no other option. Other people seeking care had to travel hundreds of miles across state lines during a public-health emergency.
These actions are part of an ongoing effort by U.S. states to limit, and in many cases prohibit, abortion access, with particularly harmful impact on marginalized communities. The U.N. independent human rights experts – who serve as the U.N. Human Rights Council’s eyes and ears, in a voluntary capacity – noted this “long history of restrictive practices against abortion.” These latest efforts extend “a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions” that worsens deep-rooted inequalities and causes irreversible harm, particularly to low-income people, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQI people.
The experts make clear that restrictions on abortion access (including requirements for multiple visits to abortion providers, excessive limits on medication abortion, and prohibitions on the use of telemedicine) undermine human rights, contrary to international human rights standards and the United States’ human rights obligations, including those the United States committed to when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992.
The U.S. government’s dismissal of the U.N. experts’ concerns and its rejection of human rights protections for abortion access is not new. But its efforts are intensifying.
The same week of its response to the experts’ letter, the State Department issued a final report by its Commission on Unalienable Rights that doubles down on the administration’s attempt to erase reproductive rights as human rights on the global stage. To the alarm of many, the report elevates religious and property rights above other rights and dismisses any human rights protection for abortion. In doing so, the report brazenly discredits binding human rights treaties and their mandate to codify human rights under widely recognized rules of international law.
But there is unequivocal consensus among U.N. human rights treaty bodies and independent experts that reproductive rights are human rights, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core human rights treaties.
These universal principles are understood to apply to the specific experiences of people in connection with their reproductive lives. Reproductive rights are essential to the realization of fundamental human rights – including the rights to health, life, equality, information, education, privacy, freedom from discrimination and violence, and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
For example, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, comprised of independent experts charged with monitoring implementation of the ICCPR, has repeatedly recognized that governments’ obligation to ensure reproductive autonomy arises from the right to privacy enshrined in the treaty. And the ICCPR’s right to life protections include the right to survive pregnancy and access comprehensive reproductive health care.
A Litany of Violations Causing Real Harm
The Trump administration has done grave damage to reproductive rights in the United States and around the world. It has reinstituted and dramatically expanded the Global Gag Rule to withhold U.S. global assistance funds from NGOs outside the United States who use any funds, including their own non-U.S. funds, to provide information, referrals, or services for legal abortion or to advocate for access to abortion care. A newly proposed federal rule would extend the Global Gag Rule to global health contracts, in addition to grants.
The United States has eliminated reporting on reproductive rights from the U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. It cut funding to the U.N. Population Fund, the main U.N. agency working to advance family planning, and withdrew from the World Health Organization. It has opposed or disassociated itself from U.N. resolutions that protect – or even mention – sexual and reproductive health and rights. And it led a joint U.N. statement opposing U.N. policies promoting reproductive health and rights.
Meanwhile, within the United States, the administration has repeatedly and systematically undermined affordable access to the full range of reproductive health care — from quality prenatal and pregnancy care to abortion care — disregarding extraordinary harm to people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, immigrants, and people who are low-income or living in poverty.
It implemented new Title X regulations prohibiting federal funds for health-care providers offering information about abortion; expanded provisions for employers to opt-out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate; and rolled backed critical non-discrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act. It has implemented cruel immigration detention and asylum policies that pose acute dangers, including for pregnant people. Just this week, a whistleblower exposed the fact that people detained at a U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement detention center in Georgia have been subjected to nonconsensual mass hysterectomies, part of a larger pattern of abuse.
In a recent Supreme Court case won by my organization (the Center for Reproductive Rights), the Trump administration argued in support of an unconstitutional law that would have made abortion care almost impossible to obtain in Louisiana, with particular and significant harm to communities already experiencing tremendous barriers to reproductive health-care access.
The administration’s repeated efforts to erase reproductive rights as human rights undermines decades of progress globally in ensuring rights protections for women, LGBTQI people, and other marginalized communities. These actions offer a dangerous roadmap for governments around the world that seek to deny rights, with devastating impact.
It is crucial to call out these U.S. efforts to undermine the credibility of the U.N. human rights system and erase the well-established framework of rights protections. In one effort to raise awareness of this challenge and show wide-ranging support for reversing the Trump administration’s harmful policies, organizations are joining a statement of support for the work of the U.N.’s human rights experts. In issuing this call, we demand that the United States commit to advancing and protecting the full scope of human rights for all.
IMAGE: Abortion rights activists rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019. The “Day of Action” rallies across the country came after the state of Alabama passed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban, prohibiting the procedure in all cases, even rape and incest, unless the mother’s life is at risk. Alabama was among about 14 states that had adopted laws by that point banning or drastically restricting access to abortion, according to activists. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)