New Report: Abortion Providers = American Human Rights Defenders, Now Under Increasing Attack

Jodi Jacobson

A new report by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) calls on both the federal and state governments to address the growing threats against and stigmatization and abuse of abortion providers throughout the United States. The report is accompanied by a series of videos including interviews with providers, and an action campaign targeting Congress.

Rewire also covered the issue of violence against reproductive health providers and domestic terrorism in a feature this week by Lindsay Beyerstein.

A new report by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) calls on both the federal and state governments to address the growing threats against and stigmatization and abuse of abortion providers throughout the United States.  The report is accompanied by a series of videos including interviews with providers, and an action campaign targeting Congress.

The report, Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment, focuses on a key obstacle to the realization of women’s reproductive rights–the challenges faced by abortion providers–and recognizes their work as human rights defenders.  It further describes:

attacks, harassment, and discriminatory legal restrictions imposed on abortion providers in six states: Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, North Dakota, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.  It also details the pervasive stigma against abortion within the medical and general communities that allows private and government attacks to persist.

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CRR underscores the human rights dimensions of access to abortion services and care as part of the broader right to reproductive health services, as agreed within the context of international human rights agreements.  While in recent years the United States has appeared to eschew the application of basic human rights principles and instruments domestically as well as internationally, the US has indeed historically been a leader both in creating and in encouraging accountability to human rights principles throughout the world.

For more than 60 years, the United States has joined most countries of the world in formally recognizing and committing to protect the fundamental human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  These include the rights to life, equality, privacy, medical care, information, education, and freedom from discrimination.

Access to reproductive health care generally and abortion care specifically are basic human rights largely ignored within the context of US domestic politics.  At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, governments explicitly acknowledged that reproductive rights are human rights, grounded in existing human rights instruments, which include the Universal Declaration. 

These rights, as noted by CRR:

include a woman’s right to make decisions about her life and family, to access reproductive health services, and to decide when and whether to have children.  [And] in the United States, the Supreme Court recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion in 1973.

In addition, CRR points out, the United States joined the U.N. General Assembly in recognizing the special challenges faced by those who promote and defend those rights.

These courageous people are known as human rights defenders.  In the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the General Assembly acknowledged the important role that the governments play i ensuring that they can function effectively and safely.

Despite domestic and international recognition of the rights of women and of human rights defenders:

many women in the United States face severe impediments to obtaining abortion services [and the physicians and healthcare workers acting as human rights defenders] persevere despite threats to their personal safety, harassment, attacks on their reputation, economic reprisals, and discriminatory restrictions [even as] they actively work to minimize the harm of these burdens on the women they serve.

Access to abortion in the United States has been increasingly limited due to the range of obstacles created through anti-choice advocacy.  The effect has been to increase the delays for women seeking abortion services–thereby leading to later termination of pregnancy than would otherwise be the case–and to increase the burdens for accessing abortion on low-income, rural, and minority women who have the least resources to begin with. "As a result of delays, women may only be able to obtain more costly, and potentially riskier, later abortions.  Or they may pass a clinic’s gestational limit altogether adn be forced to travel even farther to find services, assuming they are available.

The report identifies the following types of rights violations are most pervasive in limiting women’s choices and the rights of abortion providers.

  • Intimidation and Harassment: Intimidation, harassment, and violence faced by abortion providers in carrying out their work is a key violation of the rights of both women and providers.  "Anti-abortion activity at clinics runs the gamut from peaceful First Amendment-protected activities to civil and criminal offenses, with many behaviors in a legally contested area in between."  Yet "despite the government’s obligation to provide specific and enhanced protection to abortion providers, local law enforcement at many sites is uninformed, unresponsive, or even hostile."  Staff also endure picketing, stalking, smear campaigns and other threats to themselves and their families.
  • Legal Restrictions: These include mandatory delays and biased counseling, such as waiting periods and state-mandated provision of  information about abortion for which there are no medical requirements or medical indication.  Such laws are particularly burdensome to women and providers and have the greatest effect on women where there are severe shortages of providers, where women have the fewest financial resources, and where women are geographically isolated from health care writ large and reproductive health care specifically.  Other such restrictions detailed in the report include medical practices and facilities requirements also disconnected from good medical practice and funding prohibitions, such as those connected to Medicaid reimbursement.
  • Stigma: Stigma related to abortion care is pervasive in all six states covered by the report, creating needless obstacles for human rights defenders and eroding the number of providers in a community, thereby exacerbating lack of access and delays in abortion services as noted above.


The report concludes by making a series of recommendations for change at the state and local level for changes in policy and in law enforcement practices, as well as for the federal government, medical community and non-governmental organizations.  It makes a special plea for the United Nations Special Rapporteur to document violations of women’s human rights in the United States.

The full report and the Executive Summary are available for free at the link above.


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