UN Report Classifies Lack Of Access to Abortion as "Torture"


United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, came out with his yearly report on torture last month. This year's report "focuses on certain forms of abuses in health-care settings that may cross a threshold of mistreatment that is tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Among other things, Méndez specifically cites lack of access to abortion.

Méndez, a long-time human rights worker and visiting professor of Law at American University, details in his report global human rights abuses and offers recommendations on how to correct these issues. Included in the report is also discussion of "compulsory detention for drug users."

In the report, Mendez writes:

Persons who use, or are suspected of using, drugs and who do not voluntarily opt for drug treatment and rehabilitation are confined [and are then] compelled to undergo diverse interventions. 

Such interventions, Méndez notes, are often tantamount to torture. Citing numerous other studies, the UN report states that detainees are often subject to, "painful withdrawal from drug dependence without medical assistance, administration of unknown or experimental medications, State-sanctioned beatings, caning or whipping, forced labor, sexual abuse and intentional humiliation."

Last year, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Reproductive Rights, Anand Grover, broke major ground by demanding the removal, without delay, of all barriers with regard to reproductive access globally, as well as granted access to contraception. In his report, Grover declared denial of access to abortion as discriminatory. Coupled with the new report from the Special Rapporteur on Torture, women's rights activists worldwide are cheering.

In his report, Méndez, too, holds that denial of reproductive justice is discrimination on the basis of gender and denial of that right can cause "tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering" to women. According to the Special Rapporteur's report, such violations include:

Abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; involuntary sterilization; denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care; forced abortions and sterilizations; female genital mutilation; violations of medical secrecy and confidentiality in health-care settings, such as denunciations of women by medical personnel when evidence of illegal abortion is found; and the practice of attempting to obtain confessions as a condition of potentially life-saving medical treatment after abortion.

The importance of the report cannot be understated. In the past, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have called upon the United Nations Committee against Torture to intervene in countries such as Nicaragua where a total ban on abortion and criminalization of doctors who provide the procedure and women and girls who obtain them has been instated. Nicaragua's penal code goes so far as to penalize women who undergo miscarriages as it is often hard to discern between a miscarriage (or spontaneous abortion) and a selective abortion. Indeed, Amnesty reports that doctors and nurses are hesitant to treat extremely ill patients for fear that they may in turn harm the fetus and find themselves facing jail time. This new UN report, specifically referring to denial by the state of the right to safely terminate an unwanted pregnancy as torture or ill treatment, is promising for moving women's rights forward globally and in hopefully reversing such dangerous bans as in Nicaragua. 

Moreover, the report highlights the importance of eliminating government bureaucracy in women's health care – particularly with regards to rape survivors seeking abortion care. Throwing in boulders in the way of women's access to health care serves no legitimate purpose but to humiliate and hinder the rights of women to obtain a basic right. Even allowing abortion only in the case of rape or incest puts the burden on a woman to prove that she was a victim of such a trauma. Doing such only strains government resources, and more importantly, severely inconveniences women seeking care by forcing them to jump through hoops in pursuit of a simple medical procedure. 

The special rapporteur demands for legal abortion worldwide, as well as ensuring safe and available access to abortion. This is an important point because without ready access to abortion there is no such thing as reproductive choice.

The full report by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture can be read here.