On September 1st, Al Jazeera Online published an opinion piece entitled “Are Reproductive Rights Human Rights?”, which discussed a series of cases in which abortion was denied to women who, as a result, suffered serious health consequences, or even death. The author, Julia Zulver, asks, “… what do we say to these women? That the rights they were given by CEDAW, which their governments signed on to, and which, if upheld, could have averted their tragic fates are too Western and too ideological? What can we offer them instead?”
Zulver also discusses the roots of the idea of rights, which are enshrined in order to protect the welfare of society. But, as she rightfully asks, who defines welfare? What is the good of the society? Individual rights need to be weighed, in virtually all cases, against the good of the society in which said individuals reside. This is why, although we have freedom of speech in the United States, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded public space, because the resulting unnecessary panic could cause injuries, and the personal safety of everyone else outweighs an individual’s right to scream whatever they want. Similarly, societies seem to weigh the rights of women to access reproductive healthcare against the welfare of their societies, and in many (often including the United States), they find reproductive health wanting.
I want to make a case here for why reproductive rights are human rights, and to do so, I want to discuss one of the only rights that seems to be enshrined in virtually every society, the one lauded by every religion, the one that is the basis of all of our other rights: the right to life.
I won’t pretend to you that the right to life is universally protected, because it obviously is not. There are too many acts of senseless violence that ultimately go unpunished, too many genocides and political assassinations and disappearances throughout history for anyone to pretend that any society is perfect at upholding the right to life. That said, almost every society espouses a belief in the right to life, and in the vast majority of countries around the world, there are laws that punish those who violate this right, and punish them heavily. In some societies, there are additional mechanisms to support the right to life, including government subsidized healthcare or nutrition programs, etc. We accept that the right to life matters because no one would want their own life truncated, and because no society could function well if there were simply constant violence because life itself was not respected. Where the right to life is publicly and broadly violated-~-as, for example, in cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing-~-one of the most common precursors to the violence is the dehumanization of the targeted group, such that they won’t be seen as being on par with people in the society, and thus not worthy of these rights.
Once we’ve established that a right to life is generally agreed upon, several of the other human rights become far more defensible. A right to clean water and sanitation? That’s needed to uphold a right to life. A right to food? To shelter? A right not to be tortured? These, too, are needed to uphold the right to life, some basic sense of human dignity. The reality that we still have slavery in the world today is a result of failures of the system, a failure of societies to be willing to actually act to enforce the human rights that are being violated within their borders. But others become more slippery, even in the West: equality before the law is still a pipe dream in most parts of the world, even the United States. The lines in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dealing with marriage laws may well be overly ideological, and it’s perhaps understandable why they become points of contention.
But I’m not concerned with marriage law in this moment, since we are focusing on reproductive rights. At the end of the day, reproductive rights are human rights for the same reason a right to clean water is, or freedom from torture: they are necessary in order to uphold the right to life. When countries weigh a woman’s right to access contraception, or abortion, against “society’s welfare”, and find that the ability of a woman to access an abortion in order to save her life would endanger the rest of society, what they ultimately say is that a person loses their right to life once they become pregnant; that right to life is not universal; and that the reason that it is not universal is because ideologically, people are opposed to the procedures that would save the individual’s life. This logic would likely never hold for virtually any other kind of life-saving procedure, because the sentimental nature surrounding abortion doesn’t extend to other kinds of medical care. A right to life shouldn’t be dependent on how people in a society feel about the methods needed to save people’s lives, because undermining this right should be seen as ultimately undermining the basis of a safe society-~-something that is universally valued.
Reproductive rights are also critical because arguably, in order to have any rights, a person needs bodily autonomy. Forced pregnancy is considered by the United Nations to be a form of torture, because it strips a person of their autonomy, and can be a source of trauma for individuals subjected to it. It’s particularly important to realize that those who can become pregnant may be endangered by their pregnancy-~-not just because pregnancy itself can present life-threatening complications, but because individuals may be targeted for harm by their families or communities should they become pregnant. Individuals who become pregnant against their will (either because they were raped, or because their partners or families deny access to contraception) may experience depression, anxiety, etc., particularly for individuals already suffering from mental illness. Protecting individuals’ health and welfare ought fall under the general umbrella of human rights as well, placing reproductive rights squarely in that category.
I fully understand that human rights are, in and of themselves, a subject for debate. But the idea that individuals should have the right to live, and the right to control their bodies, shouldn’t have to be controversial-~-and in most of the world, they’re not. If we can accept those premises as they apply to things like torture and arbitrary killing, we should extend these principles to reproductive rights as well, and uphold individuals’ rights to life.