human rights day: sexual and reproductive health is a basic human right
Today is Human Rights Day, a UN-recognised day that aims to focus global attention on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the ‘common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’.
The declaration outlines the rights that every person should be afforded and uphold. Rights like freedom from slavery and oppression, from cruelty and discrimination, and the right to free speech, free thought, and free opinion.
The central purpose of the declaration is to achieve freedom, justice and peace in the world, and to affirm the dignity and worth of all men and women as equals – regardless of race, colour, religion or gender.
But there is one right that is lacking within the declaration: the right of individuals and couples to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children.
The basic right of a woman to be able to take control of her own reproductive health, through access to healthcare and medical services, with freedom from coercion or violence, is not recognised by the UN.
And in this new millenium, where 287,000 women still die every year from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, including 47,000 from unsafe abortion alone, this speaks volumes about just how far we need to go in recognising a woman’s autonomy over her own body.
That’s not to say that development agencies have let this omission go unnoticed. The international community’s first affirmation that reproductive health is, and should be, a basic right was made at the 1994 Conference on Population and Development. This has been followed by various international commitments to incorporate sexual and reproductive health into essential health laws and policies. Governments in developing countries have increasingly recognised that a lack of access and acceptance of quality sexual and reproductive services for entire populations, (or for certain population groups), is indeed a serious concern.
As promising as this is, there still exist significant legal, cultural and educational barriers, both inside and outside of health sectors, which prevent women from universal access to these basic rights.
This is no longer just a problem for the developing world. We are seeing entire states in the USA shutting down clinics that provide sexual and reproductive health services, (including, but not limited to, safe and legal abortion), by passing spurious legislation on clinic building sizes, width of interior corridors or by placing absurd demands on the qualifications needed for doctors who can practice there.
In Kentucky and Mississippi, women who want an abortion can only access one in the single remaining clinic in their state. When they do so, they are subjected to abuse and shaming by anti-abortion protestors who know exactly where to go to target these women. For an account of this astonishing abuse, read a blog by an escort at the last clinic in Mississippi. At the same time, it’s also heartening to know there are people who volunteer their time to help women in need.
Beyond the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, societies and cultures worldwide need to accept that a woman’s body is her own, and no one is better equipped to make a decision about that body than her. We need people to understand that unsafe abortion contributes to almost 13% of maternal deaths worldwide and this isn’t going to go away. Unsafe abortion exists because safe, legal abortion doesn’t.
And we need to understand that, for the 222 million women of child bearing age who have no access to contraception, the right to choose when to have a child is equal to having the right to determine their life – to be able to decide to work, to be educated, to be healthy, to be financially independent.
These rights are all dependant on having children by choice, not by chance – making it the most fundamental human right of all.