Marianne Mollmann

(WOMENSENEWS)–Human Rights Watch, one of the largest rights groups in the world, has thrown its weight behind a woman’s right to choose, simultaneously releasing a report on Argentina recommending liberalized abortion laws there and filing a brief in support of a Colombian case trying to appeal that country’s strict abortion ban.

The moves bolster challenges to abortion bans in Colombia and Argentina and raise the pressure on other rights groups that have so far skirted the issue.

“It’s time,” said Marianne Mollmann, Americas researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. “I think it is important that international human rights groups get involved in reproductive rights issues in general and in the issue of access to abortion specifically.”

Reproductive rights advocates hope the will mark a shift in the mainstream human rights community, which they say has long avoided explicit support for reproductive rights–especially abortion–for fear of political backlash.

“There’s no longer an excuse that it’s political, and not a human rights issue,” said Luisa Cabal, director of the international program for the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. “It is a human rights issue.” (Cabal is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader 2003.)

Pregnant Woman’s Decision

Human Rights Watch said, in a report released by the group Wednesday, “Human Rights Watch believes that decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant woman without interference by the state or others. The denial of a pregnant woman’s right to make an independent decision regarding abortion violates or poses a threat to a wide range of human rights.”

Women’s rights organizations have long held that women’s rights are human rights, yet the mainstream human rights community remained silent on reproductive rights issues, especially abortion, said Cabal.

“It’s a matter of an issue that remains invisible,” Cabal said. “Women’s rights are the last on the agenda.”

Cabal said the United Nations Vienna Declaration and Program of Action in 1993 marked the beginnings of a sea change in the thinking of human rights advocates throughout the world. It acknowledged women’s human rights, saying, “The human rights of women . . . are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.”

Yet it failed to mention abortion and limited its discussion of reproductive rights to affirming a woman’s right to accessible and adequate health care and the widest range of family planning services.

“There’s always been a tension in the international human rights community around talking about abortion as a reproductive freedom,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the Washington College of Law, part of American University in Washington, D.C.

In Argentina, women’s rights took a back seat even though human rights groups there boast a strong rights tradition borne of the country’s fight to end the a violent military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983, said Mabel Bianco, president of the Foundation for Studies and Research on Women in Buenos Aires.

“We are very sensitive to human rights, but not sexual and reproductive rights,” Bianco said, adding, “The issue of abortion is not seen as a human rights issue.”

Abortion Deaths in Argentina

Human Rights Watch reports that an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies in Argentina end in abortion and clandestine abortion has been the leading cause of death among pregnant women for more than 20 years.

The law there bans all abortions but waives the penalty if the mother’s life is at risk or if the pregnancy resulted from the rape of a mentally disabled woman.

“Human rights groups must start to speak,” Bianco said, arguing that rights groups cannot defend women’s rights without addressing reproductive freedoms. “What are they going to speak of? Those organizations, if they are human rights organizations, they must be involved in sexual and reproductive issues if they are going to be involved in human rights issues.”

Abortion is the third-leading cause of maternal mortality in Colombia, according to Women’s Link Worldwide, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to advancing reproductive rights through international human rights law. It has offices in Spain, Colombia and the United States.

Colombian law bans all abortions, even in cases of rape or when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk.

Women’s Link filed a legal challenge in April to the ban, arguing that the law violates women’s human rights and, by running counter to U.N. recommendations, violates international law.

Unlike lawyers in the United States, the attorneys did not need to back a test case and appeal it until it reached the Supreme Court because in Colombian any citizen can file a case directly to the constitutional court.

The case asks the court to legalize abortion in cases of rape and incest, when the pregnant women’s life and health are endangered and in case where fetal defects make it impossible for the child to survive outside the womb. Human Rights Watch recently filed a brief in support of the case.

“That Human Rights Watch is publicly supporting our lawsuit demonstrates clearly what the women’s rights movement has been saying all along, that reproductive rights are human rights,” said Monica Roa, director of the Gender Justice program for women’s link, and the Colombian attorney who brought the lawsuit.

Bringing Abortion Into Realm of Rights

The support of reproductive freedoms by Human Rights Watch–the largest U.S.-based human rights group with a $23 million annual budget–will raise the visibility of abortion and reproductive rights worldwide, Harris said. “It brings the issue into the realm of what is a right and what is not a right.”

Cabal hoped that it would raise the pressure on human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which have yet to take a position on abortion.

“That’s the role Human Rights Watch will play, opening the doors to view human rights in a larger perspective and incorporate reproductive rights issues,” Cabal said. “I think that they’ll start thinking of how to integrate this issue, if they really want to be at the forefront of human rights in the region.”

Both Cabal and Bianco have already been in touch with advocates at Amnesty International, a London-based rights group, which claims a worldwide membership of 1.8 million. The group is mid-way through a three-year campaign raising awareness of violence against women worldwide and is beginning to grapple with how to incorporate reproductive choice into their agenda, they said.

“Things are changing,” Bianco said. “At least we hope so.”

While not condemning the mainstream human rights community, Mollmann said, “I do think this is kind of an outstanding debt, and that it’s important, and it’s time to take this issue on.”

Asjylyn Loder is a writer in New York.

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