Commentary  Research 

The Right to Bodily Autonomy and Reproductive Healthcare: The UN Must Act Now

The recent wave of anti-abortion laws being passed across U.S. states is a “concerning” development, according to a UN spokesperson. The new restrictions come just weeks after the U.S. threatened to veto a UN resolution on sexual violence in conflict, and the use of rape as a weapon of war, wrote Maya Garner for International United Nations Watch .

By Maya Garner

The recent wave of anti-abortion laws being passed across U.S. states is a “concerning” development, according to a UN spokesperson. The new restrictions come just weeks after the U.S. threatened to veto a UN resolution on sexual violence in conflict, and the use of rape as a weapon of war. The resolution passed only after the resolution omitted references to sexual and reproductive healthcare. The omissions, as well as the recent anti-abortion developments in U.S. states, is an affront to women’s rights everywhere in the world; the UN must remind the U.S. of its duties as a UN member state, as well as begin efficient and persistent work toward defending and introducing reproductive healthcare to women all over the world, and must remind the U.S. and other nations of their duties as UN member states to uphold these principles. Additionally, UN rhetoric must make it clear that the rights to reproductive healthcare ultimately boils down to the basic human right of bodily autonomy.

The UN resolution surrounded methods to combat sexual violence in conflict. The draft version had included an important proposal to create a new formal monitoring body for the specific purpose of monitoring and reporting atrocities, yet this element met opposition from the U.S., Russia, and China, and was therefore omitted. The U.S. was alone in its subsequent opposition to the resolution, citing language facilitating victim’s support at family planning clinics, and reportedly threatened to veto the resolution. As a result, the resolution omitted references to reproductive healthcare services, and passed with 13 votes in favor with China and Russia abstaining. The UK reiterated its support for “the need for a survivor-centred approach” and expressed regret at the “language on services for survivors of sexual violence, recognising the acute need for those services to include comprehensive reproductive and separate sexual healthcare.” The French representative to the UN stated that “We are dismayed by the fact that one state has demanded the removal of the reference to sexual and reproductive health … going against 25 years of gains for women’s rights in situations of armed conflict.”

The U.S. has recently taken a stance against any resolutions referring to sexual reproduction, circumventing the language of UN resolution 2106 from 2013, which recognized “the importance of providing timely assistance to survivors of sexual violence, [and urged] United Nations entities and donors to provide non-discriminatory and comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial, legal, and livelihood support and other multi-sectoral services for survivors of sexual violence.” In addition, the U.S. under the Trump administration has since October 2018 sought to omit the word “gender” from U.S. human rights documents, seeing this word usage as potentially promoting transgender rights. These U.S. policies with regard to the UN can only be seen as a reflection of internal U.S. policies, now apparent through anti-abortion legislation being passed in several southern states.

In 1973, the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade ruled that abortion-bans were unconstitutional and that a woman has a fundamental “right to privacy,” setting the limit at the fetal viability stage, in which a fetus would be able to survive outside the womb, usually around 24-28 weeks. However, several southern U.S. states have now passed legislation restricting abortions at the stage in which a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which around 6 weeks – usually before women know that they are pregnant. Alabama passed legislation that would impose a total ban on abortions from the moment of conception. This legislation was passed by 25 male Republicans, making it illegal for doctors to perform abortions, for which they could now face up to 99 years of imprisonment. There are no exceptions for rape or incest, only in case the women’s health is at serious risk. This rapid passing of anti-abortion legislation at state level is evidently a political attempt to overthrow the supreme court decision of Roe v. Wade. None of the state legislations impose penalties for women for terminating pregnancies, however they effectively limit access to safe reproductive healthcare, leaving women reliant on potentially unsafe methods.

In practical terms, anti-abortion legislation does little to restrict the number of abortions, since these happen at roughly equal rates in countries in which abortions are legal, and in countries in which reproductive healthcare services are widely available. However, countries in which abortions are illegal have higher rates maternity deaths. Women have been reported to use numerous means to attempt to induce a miscarriage, including using dangerous objects, inflicting physical damage to themselves, and consuming poisonous lead and other toxic substances. These methods often lead to life-long injury, or even death. The “coat-hanger” infamously became the symbol of women’s rights to choose for this reason. Notably, the U.S. states passing anti-abortion do little to facilitate access to sexual education and preventative healthcare, apparently seeking to restrict women’s sexual activity. This gesture is evidently misogynistic and counterproductive to women’s rights, creating an environment in which pregnancies are used as punishment for sexual activities.

Leaving practicalities and political context aside, a woman’s right to reproductive healthcare is tied in with the basic human rights of bodily autonomy, or bodily integrity. This right denotes a person’s right to choose over their own body. For instance, under this right a person cannot be enslaved, and cannot be forced to engage in sexual activity against their will. Furthermore, a person cannot be forced to donate their organs away to someone else, even if the other person’s life depends on it. Whether this be a kidney or a heart, and whether this organ could be spared, a person cannot be an organ donor against their will. Evidently, this is tied in with the right to decide over one’s own reproduction, as similarly, a man cannot be forced to donate to a fertility clinic against his will. During a pregnancy, the woman’s body and her organs are used to sustain the fetus. Her right to bodily autonomy extends for the entirety of this period, the entirety of the pregnancy. Drawing a termination ban at any time during a pregnancy will always be arbitrary, whether considering a fetus a person at the point of conception, at its first heartbeat, or at the point of viability; as long as the fetus is directly dependent on the woman, she has the right to terminate the pregnancy. A person’s body cannot be used for reproduction without their consent, and the methods of termination of the pregnancy is equally up to them for this same reason.

For the reason of practicality, and for the reason of the right to bodily autonomy, the UN must ensure that these rights extend to all women worldwide, especially those put at risk of unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape from armed conflict, and that reproductive healthcare facilities are made available to those in question. The UN should condemn the activities of the U.S. in restricting women’s rights and should adopt clearer language with regard to bodily autonomy and reproductive rights; create proposals taking basis in this definition; protect resolution 2106, and seek to amend the new resolution to reinstating the language and work toward creating the monitoring group for cases of rape used as a weapon of war, which was included in the resolution’s draft proposal.