MADRE Articles

Reproductive Choice and Women's Human Rights

Posted on: Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Reproductive Rights

A MADRE Position Paper

If a woman cannot choose whether, when and with whom to have children, her other life choices—if or when to marry, where to live, and what kind of work to pursue—are limited. In fact, reproductive choice is inextricably linked to the full range of women’s human rights, including participation in public life and access to opportunities for political and economic empowerment. At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD), governments committed for the first time ever to respecting and protecting reproductive choice as crucial to women’s overall health and as a basic human right. But more than ten years later, governments and policymakers around the world continue to seek control over women’s fertility as a key to advancing fundamentalist political agendas and regulating population growth. Such policies—whether they deny women the right to limit their fertility or, conversely, deny women the right to have children—are anti-choice because they subordinate the rights and desires of individual women to the pursuit of policy objectives.

From the start, the Cairo platform was under attack from conservative and fundamentalist governments. The Bush Administration, for example, has repeatedly tried to block international consensus reaffirming states’ commitments to ICPD recommendations. Bush’s first act as president was to reinstate the “global gag rule,” which cuts US funding to healthcare organizations that provide abortions or abortion counseling or advocate legalizing abortion. Hardest hit are clinics that serve poor women in the global South. For example, in Kenya, budget cuts resulting from the “gag rule” forced seven clinics to close. Thousands of poor women relied on these clinics for primary health care, including PAP smears, vaccinations for their children, malaria screening, and HIV/AIDS services. Ironically, cuts in family planning programs have led to more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, more illegal, unsafe abortions, which kill nearly 80,000 women a year worldwide.

While the US and other fundamentalist governments violate women’s right to limit their fertility, population control advocates seek to deny women in poor countries the right to freely decide how many children to have. In dozens of poor countries “family planning” programs are singularly focused on reducing fertility through coercive contraception and sterilization campaigns. Advocates of such policies (including some prominent US-based environmental organizations and “development experts”) claim that high fertility rates in poor countries are the cause of major global crises, including mass poverty, environmental degradation, and the spread of AIDS. The theory, often presented in the parlance of “hard science,” boils down to an argument that there are too many poor people of color in the world. Meanwhile, actual causes of global emergencies—such as economic exploitation, corporate takeovers of the world’s natural resources, widespread militarism, and vast social inequality—are overlooked and those who profit from them are never implicated.

In many communities where MADRE works, governments still favor a top-down model of “delivering” long-acting birth control methods, such as Norplant, to poor and Indigenous women, without regard for health risks or women’s desire to control contraception use. Moreover, these birth control programs are implemented in the absence of overall health services for the community. Indeed, reproductive choice is one of many human rights violated by neoliberal economic policies that erode governments’ responsibility to provide basic services, including health care, to their people.

The right “to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health,” as guaranteed in the ICPD Platform, requires more than legalized abortion or access to birth control. Fulfilling this commitment requires the creation of comprehensive public health services (including health education) that are affordable, high quality, respectful and offered in local languages. In addition to full-spectrum health care, women’s ability to exercise reproductive choice entails freedom from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Condoms, for example, are only effective in preventing HIV infection and unwanted pregnancy if women have the power to insist that men use them. For most women, this capacity is compromised by economic dependency on men and/or fear of reprisal for refusing unsafe sex. Ultimately, reproductive choice is a product of having choices in other realms of life and can only be fully attained in concert with the full range of women’s human rights.

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