Are reproductive rights human rights?

Women’s lives continue to be endangered by anti-abortion policies.

In 2013 Ireland passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in response to the death of Savita Halappanavar during her pregnancy [AFP/Getty Images]

Hashmat Moslih recently wrote an opinion piece noting that the concept of human rights faces huge challenges in a culturally diverse global setting. He states: “It is impossible to develop a harmonised human rights philosophy that is not circular. At the heart of the issue of human rights runs the issue of justice and at the heart of justice runs the issue of happiness and it is argued that happiness is attained through acquiring a good life and a good life is one that insures everyone’s well-being. But how do we define well-being?”

There are many definitions of well-being, grounded in various cultural, religious, and historical contexts. Furthermore, as Moslih notes, there are contested views about what constitute fundamental rights, and whether we can ever consider these non-ideological. For example, there is by no means an international consensus about whether sexual and reproductive rights can be considered universal.

Despite this, the words of Morena Herrera, the leader of the Agrupacion Ciudadana por la Despanalizacion del Aborto (Citizens Group for the Depenalisation of Abortion), during a personal interview, will always ring clearly in my mind: “by ruling against an abortion [in the case of Beatriz], El Salvador is ruling against the life of a woman.”

I find it hard to see how ruling against the life of a woman comfortably fits within any definition of well-being. If we do accept Moslih’s argument that human rights are ideological and based on purely Western historical developments, we are still faced with the question, who is to decide what “well-being” is?

And in the case of women whose lives are threatened by their pregnancies, who is to decide whose rights are to be upheld: the mother’s or the foetus’?

Women’s lives in danger

It has been over a year since we read about the shocking case of Beatriz in El Salvador. We were outraged when the Salvadoran government refused an abortion to a young woman who suffered from lupus and renal failure, who became pregnant with an anencephalic foetus that had no chance of survival outside the womb.

Even when the Supreme Court eventually allowed a caesarean delivery, it did so only to give itself “a way out of a legal wrangle“. The court’s initial refusal to provide life-saving medical treatment was a “disgraceful violation of [Beatriz’s] fundamental human rights.”

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Perhaps less (in)famous, but no less important, is the case of L.C. v Peru, in which a 13-year-old became pregnant as the result of a rape in 2007. In a state of emotional distress, the girl attempted to commit suicide by jumping from her roof. She survived the suicide attempt, but was denied important surgery for her injuries when it was confirmed that she was pregnant.

The request for a therapeutic abortion (legal in Peru under the circumstances of danger to the life of the mother) in order to undergo the necessary surgery was denied. Eventually she was allowed the surgical procedure, but had a miscarriage. She is now paraplegic, and is unable to afford the rehabilitation treatments she needs. This case inspires shock and outrage – how is it possible to deny the rights of a rape victim, at the cost of her physical health for the rest of her life?

Most recently, we read about the case of the unnamed rape victim in the Republic of Ireland. The country has a law in which abortion is permitted when a woman is at risk of suicide. Despite being assessed by three separate medical experts who agreed that there was a risk of suicide, the victim was denied an abortion, and was forced to give birth via caesarean section. The Guardian noted that the case of this rape victim was the first proper test of Ireland’s law, the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, and that “critics say the law has proved of no practical value to the woman in this case.” The law was made in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar case, a woman who died from septicaemia due a miscarriage after also being denied an abortion in 2012.

It is widely known that severe mental suffering can result from the denial of abortion in specific cases. Ireland is a perfect example of how, every year or so, we see “flash in the pan” cases in which, for a week or so, we are forced to deal with the uncomfortable reality that various societies continue to make women suffer degrading treatment. Eventually the stories go silent, the headlines move to newer stories, but these women are left with permanent physical and psychological scars.

So what do we say to these women? That the rights they were given by CEDAW, which their governments signed on to, and which, if upheld, could have averted their tragic fates are too Western and too ideological? What can we offer them instead?

If we choose to protect these women and grant what they are asking for – abortion – do we really allow the individual to take primacy over society, as Moslih argues? Does saving the life of one woman endanger the rest of society? And who decides what is good for society? The majority dominated by a voice empowered by patriarchy? Or perhaps the powerful few at the top who control tools of persuasion and coercion? 

And as we engage in the endless squabble of what is Western, what is ideological and what a human right is, women – whose lives, health, and dignity could have been saved – continue to suffer, waiting for this debate to be resolved.

Julia Zulver is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Her upcoming thesis focuses on women’s mobilisation in El Salvador.  

Follow her on Twitter: @JZulver