Abortion Providers = Women’s Rights Defenders

Katrina Anderson

Abortion providers have been threatened, attacked, and even murdered by anti-choice extremists. If the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recognizes them as women's rights defenders, would providers be better protected?

Since
the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion
opponents have used numerous strategies to undermine women’s constitutional
right to abortion and prevent women’s access to abortion.  One
persistent approach has been targeting reproductive healthcare professionals
in order to make it impossible for them to provide abortion services. 
Abortion providers have been threatened, attacked, and even murdered
by anti-choice extremists; stigmatized and professionally ostracized
by their medical colleagues; harassed by public officials hostile to
abortion rights; and over-regulated by legislators who believe abortion
should be treated differently than comparable medical procedures. 
In the face of these threats and pressures, heroic women and men committed
to women’s health and rights continue to provide services, often at
great personal, professional, and financial cost.   Yet, these
tactics have had their toll.  Fewer and fewer reproductive healthcare
professionals are willing or able to provide abortion services in the
United States. Currently, there are 37% fewer providers than there were
in 1982 which has greatly diminished women’s ability to obtain abortion
services.

On
Tuesday, October 28, in Washington, D.C., the Center for Reproductive
Rights and three other human rights organizations appeared before the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at a hearing to discuss women’s
rights defenders across the hemisphere.  The Commission is a key
human rights body that works to hold states across the Americas accountable
to their human rights obligations.  Over the past several years,
it has emphasized the important role women’s rights defenders play
in the realization of human rights and the special risks and vulnerabilities
they face.  Some women’s rights defenders are targeted because
of their gender, making them more vulnerable to certain types of attacks
such as sexual violence.  Others, like Jen Boulanger, the executive
director of Allentown’s Women’s Center, in Allentown, Pennsylvania,
are targeted for the work they do in defending women’s rights, such
as advocating for and providing reproductive healthcare services.

Jen
submitted testimony about the constant targeting of the Allentown Women’s
Center and its employees by the anti-abortion movement.  Women’s
rights defenders from Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica,
México, Nicaragua, and Perú also testified about the risks they face
in their work, promoting women’s sexual and reproductive rights, protecting
women from violence, and fighting discrimination on the grounds of sexual
orientation and gender identity.  Testimony and documentation presented
at the hearing demonstrated how women’s rights defenders throughout
the hemisphere have faced similar kinds of violations, including attacks
on their personal safety, threats against their families, smear campaigns,
and government restrictions on their work.   

Each
testimony looked at the need for governments to recognize the importance
of women’s rights defenders in upholding fundamental human rights
such as dignity, liberty, and equality.  To that end, they urged
the Commission to encourage governments to adopt and enforce strong
measures to improve their safety and to eliminate policies and laws
that impede their work.  As Jen Boulanger explained in her written
testimony, "Currently there are no attempts to prevent violence at
our clinic.  Police are called at least once per week to maintain
order, but there is no deterrent for unlawful behavior–no punishment,
no legal action." When Jen turned to the city for help in resolving
ongoing threats, public officials refused to help.  Their explanation? 
If the clinic chooses to offer abortion services, providers should expect
to face threats and intimidation from anti-abortion extremists–in
other words, it comes with the territory.  One solution Jen proposed
is to re-activate the national task force for clinic violence prevention
established under U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno but long dormant
under the Bush administration.  The task force would greatly improve
coordination of law enforcement at the federal and local levels, providing
local police the tools and funding they need to effectively prevent
violence.  Her recommendation mirrored those of other defenders
who called for an end to impunity for violations against women’s rights
defenders.  For example, Colombian defenders asked the Commission
to pressure Colombia to investigate and punish those who attack women
trade unionists, and transgender rights activists in Costa Rica sought
accountability for consistent discrimination and violence they endure
from law enforcement.

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Jen
and the other human rights activists know that going to the Commission
is only the first step in raising awareness about the important role
of women’s rights defenders in building the larger culture of human
rights.  But unless defenders are safe and able to do their jobs,
women will continue to be denied their basic human rights, including
their rights to equality, to be free from violence and to access reproductive
health care including abortion. Working collaboratively with the United
Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the Commission
has worked successfully to monitor trends of violations against human
rights defenders and make appropriate recommendations to states on how
to improve their systems of rights protection.  By following these
international recommendations about how best to defend the defenders
of human rights, the U.S. can send a strong statement about its commitment
to ensuring reproductive rights as fundamental human rights.  Providers
of women’s reproductive rights in the United States deserve not only
our gratitude and respect but also a legal framework that protects their
security and allows them to do their jobs.  The first step is to
recognize them as women’s rights defenders.

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