UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health Calls on States to Ensure Sexual and Reproductive Rights

At the 66th UN General Assembly this week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover, presented his annual report, which focuses on the criminalization of sexual and reproductive health.

From the report’s summary:
“In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health considers the interaction between criminal laws and other legal restrictions relating to sexual and reproductive health and the right to health. The right to sexual and reproductive health is a fundamental part of the right to health. States must therefore ensure that this aspect of the right to health is fully realized.

The Special Rapporteur considers the impact of criminal and other legal restrictions on abortion; conduct during pregnancy; contraception and family planning; and the provision of sexual and reproductive education and information. Some criminal and other legal restrictions in each of those areas, which are often discriminatory in nature, violate the right to health by restricting access to quality goods, services and information. They infringe human dignity by restricting the freedoms to which individuals are entitled under the right to health, particularly in respect of decision-making and bodily integrity. Moreover, the application of such laws as a means to achieving certain public health outcomes is often ineffective and disproportionate.”

Many of the report’s recommendations are very relevant to sexual and reproductive rights in the United States. Here is a selection: 

The Special Rapporteur calls upon States to:

  • Develop comprehensive family planning policies and programmes, which provide a wide range of goods, services and information relating to contraception and are available, accessible and of good quality;
  • Take steps to ensure the availability, accessibility and quality of a full range of contraceptive methods, including both pharmaceutical and surgical contraceptive methods;
  • Take steps to standardize national curricula to ensure that sexual and reproductive education is comprehensive, evidence-based, and includes information regarding human rights, gender and sexuality;
  • Ensure safe, good quality health services, including abortion, using services, in line with WHO protocols.
  • Ensure that accurate, evidence-based information concerning abortion and its legal availability is publicly available and that health-care providers are fully aware of the law related to abortion and its exceptions;
  • Ensure that conscientious objection exemptions are well-defined in scope and well-regulated in use and that referrals and alternative services are available in cases where the objection is raised by a service provider;
  • Suspend/abolish the application of existing criminal laws to various forms of conduct during pregnancy, such as conduct related to treatment of the foetus, most notably miscarriage, alcohol and drug consumption and HIV transmission.

The report can be used as human rights guidance in the ongoing U.S. debate on abortion:

“Examples of other restrictions [on abortion] include: laws prohibiting public funding of abortion care; requirements of counselling and mandatory waiting periods for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy; requirements that abortions be approved by more than one health-care provider; parental and spousal consent requirements; and laws that require health-care providers to report “suspected” cases of illegal abortion when women present for post-abortion care, including miscarriages. These laws make safe abortions and post-abortion care unavailable, especially to poor, displaced and young women. Such restrictive regimes, which are not replicated in other areas of sexual and reproductive health care, serve to reinforce the stigma that abortion is an objectionable practice.”

“States must take measures to ensure that legal and safe abortion services are available, accessible, and of good quality. Safe abortions, however, will not immediately be available upon decriminalization unless States create conditions under which they may be provided. These conditions include establishing available and accessible clinics; the provision of additional training for physicians and healthcare workers; enacting licensing requirements; and ensuring the availability of the latest and safest medicines and equipment.”

Download the full report with all recommendations below or access it via the UN website.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report was welcomed by many human rights, women’s rights and health advocacy organizations, which issued a joint statement supporting the report’s conclusion that “the misuse of criminal laws and punitive policies in the area of sexual and reproductive health cause disproportionate suffering for women; people engaging in same sex sexual conduct; people identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons; those living with HIV or AIDS; and other groups who already suffer discrimination.”