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US states ‘manipulating’ COVID-19 pandemic to restrict abortion access, rights experts charge

The Human Rights Council, Geneva (file photo, May 2018)
UN Photo/Elma Okic
The Human Rights Council, Geneva (file photo, May 2018)

US states ‘manipulating’ COVID-19 pandemic to restrict abortion access, rights experts charge

Human Rights

Independent UN human rights experts fear that some authorities in the United States are using the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict access to abortion, with at least eight states suspending procedures deemed medically unnecessary.

Members of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls issued a statement on Wednesday expressing regret that states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee “appear to be manipulating the crisis” to curb women’s reproductive rights.

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“This situation is also the latest example illustrating a pattern of restrictions and retrogressions in access to legal abortion care across the country. We fear that, without clear political will to reverse such restrictive and regressive trends, states will continue pursuing this pattern,” said Elizabeth Broderick, Vice-Chair of the Working Group.

Access critical now

Access to abortion services is crucial at this time, according to the five independent experts, as women are facing new restrictions on their mobility due to quarantines and other stay-at-home measures.

“We also express serious concern that, by denying access to time-sensitive abortion care, officials are placing women at risk, exacerbating systemic inequalities”, said Ms. Broderick.

“For many women in the US, bans on abortion during this pandemic will delay abortion care beyond the legal time limit or render abortion services completely inaccessible.”

The experts stressed that abortion care constitutes essential health care and must remain available during the crisis. Bans would also force women to travel out of state to obtain abortion services, thus undermining efforts to address COVID-19.

They said restrictions on access to reproductive health information and services, which includes abortion and contraception, constitute human rights violations.

Meanwhile, denying women access to information and services which only they require, is “inherently discriminatory” and prevents them from exercising full control over their bodies and lives.

A key part of pandemic response

The Working Group was also extremely concerned by the US insistence to remove references to “sexual and reproductive health and its derivatives” from the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) on COVID-19, as expressed through a letter on 18 May from USAID to the UN Secretary-General.

“We reiterate that sexual and reproductive health services, including access to safe and legal abortion, are essential and must remain a key component of the UN’s priorities in its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ms. Broderick.

“Removing references to sexual and reproductive health from the HRP will have devastating consequences for women worldwide. It will seriously undermine the international community’s joint effort to respond to women’s health needs in this time of crisis,”

The UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls was established by the Human Rights Council in September 2020. Members are not UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organization.