Why a recent UN ruling could put America’s restrictive abortion laws in the crosshairs

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Following the United Nations' landmark decision today in defense of women's rights to abortion care, states pushing for severely restrictive abortion laws are dangerously close to contravening international human rights standards.

The U.N.'s Human Rights Committee ruled in favor of an Irish woman, Amanda Mellett, who challenged her country's abortion laws after being forced to leave Ireland for an abortion when she found out that her fetus had fatal congenital defects, meaning it would die in the womb or shortly after birth. The committee found in favor of Mellett's argument that "Ireland’s abortion law subjected [her] to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and encroached on her dignity and physical and mental integrity."

When Mellett returned to Ireland from the U.K., only 12 hours after her abortion because she couldn't afford to stay long enough to fully recover, she was denied access to medical care and counseling. The U.N. committee wrote that she was forced to make a decision “between continuing her non-viable pregnancy or travelling to another country while carrying a dying foetus, at personal expense and separated from the support of her family, and to return while not fully recovered."


Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world: the procedure is only allowed if a woman's life is at risk. Irish law does not allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormalities and even if, as in Mellett's case, doctors say the fetus will not survive.

“Many of the negative experiences she went through could have been avoided if (she) had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of her own country and under the care of health professionals whom she knew and trusted,” the committee wrote.

The Irish government will be required to compensate Mellett for her costs and for damage to her mental and physical wellbeing. And they're obliged as a signatory of the International Bill of Human Rights to prevent this from happening to other women in Ireland. Meanwhile, the U.S. is also a signatory to that bill of rights–but the laws being proposed in some U.S. states are almost as extreme as those in Ireland. The Guttmacher Institute writes:

Legislators in nine states have introduced measures to ban all or most abortions in the state, generally by either granting legal personhood to a fetus at the moment of conception or prohibiting abortions at or after six weeks of pregnancy.


Across the country, 38% of women live in a county without an abortion clinic, the Los Angeles Times reports, and there's even less access in states like Missouri and Mississippi, where there is just one abortion clinic left. That means that like Amanda Mellett, many women are required to travel long distances, sometimes across state lines, to have a safe abortion.

In Oklahoma, a measure that would have effectively criminalized abortions by prosecuting almost any doctor for performing the procedure was narrowly avoided last month after the state's legislature passed the provision. The state's governor, Mary Fallin, vetoed it. This week Fallin did sign another bill into law that will require state agencies to develop education materials "for the purpose of achieving an abortion-free society."


In the first few months of this year, 411 bills seeking to restrict abortion to various degrees were introduced in state legislatures around the country. Of those, the Guttmacher Institute reports, 21 new anti-abortion laws have already been enacted.

Requirements like mandatory counseling (which women in 38 states are required to get) and waiting periods (which women in 28 states have to endure) before women are allowed to go through with having an abortion are already contrary to international healthcare best practices. The World Health Organization has said that restrictive laws that enforce measures like these can put women's health at risk. "Women, including adolescents, with unwanted pregnancies often resort to unsafe abortion when they cannot access safe abortion," the organization says in its guidelines on abortion.


And while these restrictions affect all women, they take a disproportionate toll on low-income women and women of color, who already face higher barriers to access healthcare. The United Nations ruling sends a clear message to governments around the world that state legislators would do well to take notice of how taking away a woman's ability to find safe, accessible heath care services is a violation of her human rights.

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