UN anti-torture rapporteur denounces RSH violations

Congratulations to Christina Zampas, who recently became a Fellow of our International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program, working on issues concerning the intersection of reproductive rights and the exercise of religion.   We thank her for reviewing this new UN report and summarizing its contributions to the realization of reproductive rights.    

New UN Report:  sexual and reproductive rights violations may amount to torture

On February 1, 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, issued a report focusing on forms of abuses in health-care settings that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  The first UN report of its kind, it addresses issues concerning the mistreatment of various vulnerable groups and identifies measures that states can take to prevent such mistreatment. It covers numerous sexual and reproductive rights violations, including some that have not been fully addressed before by the UN human rights system. 

This report joins a growing number of international human rights mechanisms that are using International Federation for Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and other health professional guidelines to develop groundbreaking human rights standards.  For instance, the Rapporteur relied on FIGO’s new guidelines on sterilization to find that sterilization can never be medically justified on therapeutic grounds and may constitute torture or ill treatment. The report addresses the pervasive practice of involuntary sterilization of women with disabilities and the mistreatment of “intersex” children (born with atypical sex characteristics) who are subjected to medically unnecessary and involuntary sex assignment, sterilization and/or genital-normalizing surgery, in an attempt to “fix their sex.”  Such forced or coerced practices often occur through third-party authorization or substitute decision-making. The Rapporteur calls on states to repeal laws allowing such involuntary “treatments” and to outlaw forced and coerced sterilization under all circumstances.

The report reinforces human rights standards which recognize that the abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services, especially abortion, can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. For example, the Rapporteur joins the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing the denial of information concerning one’s pregnancy as a violation of human rights. The case at the European Court of Human Rights, RR v Poland, found a violation of the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment when a pregnant woman was intentionally denied access to a prenatal test in order to prevent her from undergoing an abortion.   

The report failed, however, to address the full range of reproductive rights violations women experience, including the pervasive practice of denying women access to emergency contraception after unprotected sex, even in cases of rape.  Last year the UN Committee Against Torture, which monitors state compliance with the Convention Against Torture, articulated this denial as a form of cruel and inhuman treatment and recommended that a state party guarantee access to emergency contraception to victims of rape. 

 Special Rapporteur’s report is online here. 

For  FIGO’s  Contraceptive Sterilization Guidelines, 2011,
see  page 122 of FIGO’s booklet of ethical guidelines, online here.

Link to CRR webpage on RR v Poland is online here

UN Committee Against Torture’s  concluding observations to Peru, January 2013, para 15, calling for the legalization of emergency contraception to victims of rape, are discussed here.

Dr. Ronli Sifris’s thesis abstract on Abortion Restrictions, Involuntary Sterilization and the Convention on Torture or CDIT is available here.

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