Illegal US Abortion Restrictions: Key Points for the Universal Periodic Review of the United States

Introduction

During the United States’ (US) second-cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR), multiple states made recommendations concerning US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, including the Helms Amendment. In addition to donor and recipient countries, these restrictions have also been the subject of concern for human rights bodies and experts. The US has failed to take any action on these state recommendations; in fact, in 2017 the Trump administration further entrenched and expanded the scope of these policies with the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule (GGR).

The restrictive abortion policies include those imposed by the US Congress – the Helms and Siljander Amendments (Helms-related restrictions) – as well as the Presidentially imposed GGR. The restrictions impact different pools of money: the Helms-related restrictions dictate how US foreign aid can be spent and apply to all foreign assistance funds, while the GGR limits how funds from any donor can be spent if a foreign non-governmental organization receives US global health assistance. These restrictions not only ignore the US’s own obligations under international law, but violate a broad array of women’s rights, deny them essential services, and put their lives and well-being at risk.

The Global Justice Center’s full submission highlights continuing concerns over these US policies which impose blanket prohibitions on abortion services and speech, in violation of US obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, customary international law, and UN Security Council Resolutions. It is long past time for the US to repeal these regressive and harmful policies, direct their aid to pursue positive health outcomes for women, and to realize women’s fundamental rights under international human rights and humanitarian law

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Faith-Based Organizations are Undermining Nepal’s Progressive Abortion Policy

By Nishan Kafle

Nepal has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world thanks to the multitudes of missionary organizations — both Nepali and international — operating in every nook and cranny of the country. While proselytizing isn’t problematic in and of itself, Christian missionaries in Nepal are also bringing their anti-LGBT and pro-life worldview to their work. This is especially pernicious in a country where patriarchy is dominant and a new law guaranteeing safe and legal abortion services is in desperate need of protection.

Nepal, a predominantly Hindu country, set the standard in women’s health in Asia by legalizing abortion in 2002 when the 11th amendment bill became law. Before 2002, women in Nepal receiving abortions were subject to punitive punishment by the government and had to endure social ostracism. But even after abortion was legalized, many Nepali women, fearing social stigma, preferred to have their abortion done surreptitiously by untrained maids rather than going to state-run health clinics. Others decided not to get an abortion altogether, owing to lack of awareness, inaccessibility to clinics in remote areas and, and, in a recent development, propaganda from anti-abortion missionaries.

The Persistent Danger of Trump’s Definition of “Unalienable Rights”

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine op-ed by GJC's Elena Sarver.

The State Department’s newly formed Unalienable Rights Commission held its third public meeting today. It’s been six months since the commission was first announced in July 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but it’s important to not lose sight of the dangers this commission poses.

To start, the very existence of this group as a way to determine and define human rights fundamentally distorts and misunderstands the very nature of human rights—they cannot be limited based on the views of a single government. Further, we should be most alarmed at its obvious intent: to erode long-established human rights in service of a regressive agenda, with clear antagonism toward abortion rights in particular.

At the outset, the commission is working under a seriously flawed premise. Universal human rights norms exist to hold states accountable: they cannot be defined or redefined based on the demands of an individual administration. Especially an administration like Trump’s, which has systematically disengaged from, rejected and attempted to erode the human rights system since its inauguration.

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"That's Illegal" Episode 12: The Commission to Undermine Human Rights

GJC's Elena Sarver and Merrite Johnson dive into the Trump administration’s new “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” The commission is stacked with socially conservative ideologues with a history of hostility to abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. Its goal? To remake human rights in the image of Trump and his regressive agenda.

Enjoy this episode? Follow us on iTunes and Soundcloud!

Canary in the Coal Mine: Abortion & the Commission on Unalienable Rights

GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and GJC Legal Adviser Elena Sarver published this article in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

Abstract:

This past July, the Trump administration announced the creation of a new body with a curious name—the “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the effort as an attempt to “ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.” However, universal human rights norms exist to hold states accountable: they cannot be defined, redefined, or limited based on the demands or viewpoints of a single government. While Secretary Pompeo claims that he wants to depoliticize human rights, this commission does the exact opposite.

The establishment of this panel is yet another offense on the international system as part of the Trump administration’s regressive agenda. This action follows a clear pattern of ideological attacks on US engagement with the human rights system and the norms they uphold. Such recent examples, as this submission will discuss in greater detail, include withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, erasing reproductive rights from human rights reports, and cutting funding to the Organization of American States in an attempt to censor abortion-related speech. Additionally, the denial of abortion care to women held in detention at the US border, the problematic nomination of Andrew Bremberg as US Ambassador to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, and the removal of language referencing sexual and reproductive health care in UN Security Council Resolution 2467 also fall into the administration’s pattern of undermining the importance of women’s health and bodily autonomy.

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United States: Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review

Summary

During the United States’ (“US”) second-cycle Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), multiple states made recommendations concerning US abortion restrictions on foreign assistance, including the Helms Amendment. The US has failed to take any action on these recommendations; in fact, in 2017 the Trump administration further entrenched and expanded the scope of these policies with the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule (or “GGR,” officially termed “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance”). It should be noted that when the GGR is in effect its repeal tends to be the sole focus of advocates and policymakers; however, it is important to highlight that the long-standing pernicious statutory restrictions, including the Helms Amendment, enable the GGR, cause their own unique harms, as well as compound those of the GGR, and their repeal must also be the subject of attention. This submission highlights continuing concerns over these US policies which impose blanket prohibitions on abortion services and speech, in violation of US obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, customary international law, and UN Security Council Resolutions.

Download the Full Submission

There’s Nothing “Pro-Life” About Sweeping Abortion Bans

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine op-ed by GJC Communications Manager Liz Olson.  

Alabama’s sweeping abortion ban compares abortion to the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, as though the termination of a fetus is morally equivalent to the willful annihilation of a people. But it is abortion bans, not the women who seek them, that put lives at risk every day.

Legislation that criminalizes abortion access and provision does not prevent abortions—it just makes them more dangerous. The World Health Organization reports that about 25 million unsafe abortions are performed annually, primarily in regions with heavily restrictive abortion laws. Women who have unsafe abortions face serious and even fatal medical complications like heavy blood loss, infection and damage to internal organs. Unsafe abortions are even a leading cause of maternal mortality: 68,000 women die from them every year around the world.

The deadly impact of restrictive abortion policies is so well documented that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, once declared that total abortion bans “amount to a gender-based arbitrary killing, only suffered by women, as a result of discrimination enshrined in law.” 

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Coalition Sign-On Letter for House "Born Alive" Amendment

Dear Representatives,

We, the undersigned reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations, write in strong opposition to any attempts to interfere with evidence-based patient care and medical practice, such as the amendment Rep. Scalise filed with the Rules Committee to amend H.R. 986. S

The potential House vote is the latest in a series of anti-choice political stunts that are clearly intended to capitalize on the false and inflammatory rhetoric surrounding abortion later in pregnancy. President Trump used his bully pulpit to spread misinformation, shame women who need abortion care later in pregnancy, and attack healthcare providers committed to providing their patients with quality, evidence-based health care when they are making the most difficult decisions. Women and families in these situations deserve our compassion and support – not our judgment and certainly not politicians telling them what to do.

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Much More Than Language: How the US Denied Survivors of Rape in Conflict Lifesaving Care

Excerpt of Women Under Siege op-ed by GJC Deputy Legal Director Grant Shubin.  

On Wednesday, April 23, 2019, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2467 during the Council’s annual Open Debate on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. .

After months of German-led negotiations, passage of the Resolution ultimately came down to sexual and reproductive health (SRH)—specifically, whether the U.S. would veto its inclusion in the final text.

The U.S. justified its position by claiming that SRH is a euphemism for abortion services. Not only is this not true—SRH includes, among other things, contraception, safe abortion services, HIV prevention, and prenatal healthcare—but even if it were, abortion services for survivors of sexual violence save lives.

Unsafe abortion causes the deaths of 47,000 people each year and leaves another 5 million with some form of permanent or temporary disability. They may suffer complications, including hemorrhage, infection, perforation of the uterus, and damage to the genital tract or internal organs. In fact, the consequences of denying abortion services have been found to be so severe that it can amount to torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment.

The international community cannot become accustomed or complacent to the Trump administration’s use of domestic politics to hold international rights hostage. Because it is more than just words that are given up last minute on the floor of the Security Council—it’s women’s lives.

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UN Security Council Adopts Resolution 2467

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 23, 2019

[NEW YORK, NY] – Today, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2467 on Women, Peace and Security. Although the resolution purports to address the needs of victims of sexual violence in conflict, it contains no direct references to reproductive health—a key component of necessary and comprehensive medical care. This last-minute compromise was made to avoid a certain veto by the United States government.

United Nations Human Rights Committee Requests Information on United States Violations of Sexual and Reproductive Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 3, 2019

[NEW YORK, NY] – Today, the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) challenged the United States’s restrictive abortion policies as potential violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in its list of issues prior to submission of the fifth periodic report of the United States. The Global Justice Center (GJC) commends the HRC for asking the US to provide information on the impact of the reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule on women's rights under the ICCPR, including to non-discrimination and equal protection under Article 2, 3 and 26, the right to life in Article 6 and the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 7.

Holistic Care for Victims of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence


By: Maryna Tkachenko

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) takes on various forms: rape, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, forced abortion, sexual exploitation, trafficking, genital mutilation, and other heinous forms of sexual abuse. Although both women and men can become targets of sexual violence, women constitute the majority of the victims. It has been widely recognized that all survivors experience long-lasting mental and physical harm, but women and girls have unique, gender-sensitive needs. That is why survivor-centered care is one of the main requirements in providing victims with the tools to take control of their lives. Avoiding further harm and trauma, we must treat survivors with respect for their dignity, bodily autonomy, and the choices they make. 

What does holistic, victim-centered care constitute in practice? Drawing on extensive experience as a founder of Panzi Hospital in 1999 and a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work to end the use of rape as a weapon of war, Dr. Denis Mukwege offers us the Panzi Model, a holistic model of care that addresses the root causes of violence against women and girls and rebuilds survivors’ lives based on principles of human rights and gender equality. This model encompasses four main aspects: psychosocial support, medical care, access to legal justice, and reintegration into communities.

Statement: Response to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Expanded Application of Global Gag Rule and Siljander Amendment

Today, the Trump Administration launched another attack on women’s health, expanding the scope of the Global Gag Rule and the application of the Siljander Amendment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced that the US will cut its assistance to the Organization of American States (OAS) based on claims that its agencies are lobbying for abortions. As a quasi-governmental body, OAS recommendations are expert guidance, not lobbying. The US is censoring free speech around the world and is using the Siljander Amendment to justify decreasing contributions to the OAS on purely ideological grounds.

The OAS and its subsidiary bodies, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, work to ensure the fundamental human rights of women and girls living in member states. Threatening these institutions’ ability to carry out their mandate through the power of the purse is both unconscionable and illegal. Over the past two weeks at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the Trump Administration cemented the US’s new position as a government opposed to women’s rights, health and autonomy—Secretary Pompeo’s announcement today is one more dangerous step in that direction.

For more information contact:
Liz Olson, Communications Manager at Global Justice Center, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (212) 725-6530 ext. 217

US Abortion Restrictions Violate Women’s Human Rights

Excerpt of PassBlue op-ed by GJC President Akila Radhakrishnan and CHANGE President Serra Sippel. 

Every year, 25 million women across the world are forced to obtain unsafe abortions. The United States, through its foreign policy, is deeply complicit in the violation of these women’s right to life and equality under international law.

International human-rights frameworks guard against these violations and hold the US and other countries accountable. The International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), for instance, details the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people worldwide, including the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to equality. Such rights are not symbolic: they are grounded in the dignity of each human being and protected by international law.

Since 1966, 172 parties — including the US — have signed the ICCPR. It is one of the few human-rights treaties that the US has ratified. But today, the US imposes illegal abortion policies that brazenly violated its obligations under the Covenant and other binding provisions of international law.

Read the Full Op-Ed in PassBlue

Where Can Refugees Turn for Abortions?

Excerpt of Ms. Magazine blog post by GJC Development Director Danielle Stouck.

I first met Fatima and her four young children at a coffee shop in downtown Amman in the summer of 2014. With tears in her eyes and her youngest son asleep in her arms, she recounted the details of her harrowing escape from Syria’s southwestern Daraa province and her experience crossing the border into Jordan.

Not everyone in Fatima’s family escaped safely. Her husband and brother, she explained, were missing and presumed dead after a raid in her village had left her home and community decimated. She was alone, struggling to make ends meet and desperate for help. She and her children were traumatized. And she was pregnant.

Unwanted pregnancy occurs everywhere, but it is especially concerning in crisis settings, where displaced and refugee women are among the most vulnerable of at-risk populations. As a recent Guttmacher Institute report on refugee reproductive rights points out, “Women’s needs do not suddenly stop or diminish during an emergency—in fact, they become greater.”

When Fatima reached out to me in 2014, I was working with a Jordanian non-governmental organization to strengthen protections against sexual and gender-based violence and provide critical sexual and reproductive health services to refugees from Iraq and Syria. Fully funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, our work involved developing strong referral pathways for refugees in need of family planning support, including abortion services.

Thankfully, I was able to connect Fatima with the medical and psychosocial support that she so desperately needed. She was able to safely terminate her pregnancy and was provided with contraceptives and counseling as she worked to rebuild her life in Jordan. But five years later,  I would be barred from providing women like her with the same level of care. Under the Trump administration’s reinstatement and expansion of the dangerous and illegal Global Gag Rule, I would be “gagged”—and women like Fatima would be denied information critical to their health and their futures.

Read the Full Post at Ms. Magazine Blog

Letter to HHS: Comments in Response to Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2020

Dear Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma:

The Global Justice Center (“GJC”) submits this comment in response to the Department of Health and Human Services’ (“HHS”) Proposed Rule entitled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters for 2020 (the “Proposed Rule”).  For purposes of this submission, commentary is limited to the portion of the Proposed Rule that would amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) so that private insurance providers that provide abortion services would be required to offer a version of the plan which does not cover abortion services.

GJC is an international human rights organization based in New York dedicated to achieving gender equality through the rule of law. For the past decade, GJC has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the law protects and promotes access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights for women and girls around the world. As experts in women’s rights and human rights, we write to express our vehement opposition to the Proposed Rule.

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International Law Demands the U.S. Do Better on Abortion Policy

Read GJC Staff Attorney Danielle Hites' post on the Ms. Magazine Blog.

Within days of assuming office in 2017, President Trump re-instated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, which restricts funding for international organizations that provide or “promote” abortions. Two years later, feminist lawmakers serving in the now Democratic-led House kicked off their own terms by attempting to roll it back.

Pending legislation to establish a budget and keep the government open beyond the three week negotiation period includes a provision that would protect NGOs from being categorically defunded, effectively rescinding the Global Gag Rule. The House spending bill would render health and medical services of such organizations, including counseling and referral services, as insufficient for the sole basis for ineligibility for U.S. funding, and allow NGOs to use non-U.S. funding with fewer regulations.

Every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has enacted some version of the Global Gag Rule, but Trump drastically expanded its scope—and magnitude of harm. NGOs receiving U.S. foreign aid are now prohibited from spending any of their funds, including funding from non-U.S. sources, on abortion-related services, referrals, counseling or advocacy. Trump’s iteration of the Global Gag Rule also applies to all U.S. global health assistance, as opposed to previous version which were centered solely on U.S. family planning funds, meaning it affects $8.8 billion of foreign aid rather than $575 million.

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Censorship Exported: The Impact of Trump’s Global Gag Rule on the Freedom of Speech and Association

Joint policy brief by the Global Justice Center and the Center for Health and Gender Equality (CHANGE)

In January 2017, President Trump signed a presidential memorandum reinstating the Global Gag Rule (GGR), an onerous policy that not only limits the provision of abortion services as a method of family planning but also restricts a wide variety of speech about abortion, including information, certain types of research, and advocacy. 

Two years on, the detrimental impacts of Trump’s GGR on sexual and reproductive health, HIV and AIDS services, and maternal mortality are well documented. But the GGR, in conjunction with other US abortion restrictions on foreign aid, also violates the fundamental rights of individuals and organizations to free speech and association. This policy brief looks at the documented impacts of the GGR that have been observed over the past two years against the human rights framework protecting the fundamental freedoms of speech and association. This is an edited version of GJC and CHANGE’s submission to the Human Rights Committee’s 125th Session for the preparation of the US List of Issues Prior to Reporting.

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