U.N. Warns Countries With Draconian Abortion Bans That They’re Violating Human Rights


United Nations officials are urging several countries with particularly harsh abortion bans to increase legalization of the medical procedure, pointing out their current laws could be in breach of international human rights treaties.

In its periodic reviews of member countries’ policies to ensure they’re compliant with the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Human Rights Committee is recommending that Ireland and Chile update their abortion laws to ensure access for more women. Those two countries have some of the most restrictive abortion policies in the world; Chile imposes a total ban on the procedure, while Ireland has a nearly total ban with an extremely narrow exception.

The U.N.’s report on Ireland recommends that the country’s law should be revised “to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal fetal abnormality.” Right now, an Irish woman can only have an abortion if her life is in immediate danger, or if she gets three different doctors to confirm that she suffers from mental health issues that put her at risk for suicide.

When questioning Irish officials about the law, members of the human rights committee asked how forcing a pregnant woman at risk of suicide to be examined by three doctors before being allowed to proceed with an abortion could be “consistent with the obligation to protect her against mental torture.” They also pointed out that the harsh law “adversely affects vulnerable groups of women,” like the low-income women who may not be able to navigate the complicated medical requirements. Ultimately, their report concludes, Ireland’s laws are depriving women of their human rights.

Similarly, the committee is instructing Chile to “establish exceptions to the general prohibition of abortion, contemplating therapeutic abortion and in those cases in which the pregnancy is a consequence of a rape or incest.” U.N. officials expressed concern that an estimated 150,000 illegal abortions are performed in Chile each year, and encouraged lawmakers to “make sure that reproductive health services are accessible to all women and adolescents.”

Both Ireland and Chile have come under particular scrutiny over the past year for their harsh abortion policies, making international headlines for tragic cases in which women have been denied reproductive care. There were massive global protests after 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar’s death in Ireland, which could have been prevented if she had received an emergency abortion, and widespread outrage after an 11-year-old Chilean rape victim was forced to continue a risky pregnancy. In Ireland, pro-choice activists have been quietly helping women leave the country to terminate their pregnancies in other European nations, risking being sentenced to up to 14 years in prison for disseminating information about abortion.

The United Nations has long taken the stance that countries should not deprive women of their reproductive options. Previous U.N. reports have urged countries around the world to remove their “unnecessary barriers” to abortion, pointing out that thousands of young, poor women in developing nations are dying because of illegal abortion procedures in unsafe conditions.

This isn’t an issue that the United States is necessarily above, either. Although abortion is legal in this country, lawmakers have still imposed significant hurdles to the procedure on the state level that prevent many women from being able to exercise their reproductive rights. Perhaps the best example of that unfolding dynamic is Texas, where a harsh new law has forced half of the state’s abortion clinics to close and left thousands of women with few options. Earlier this year, a reproductive rights group took that case all the way to the United Nations, arguing that Texas has created a human rights crisis.