Updated July 24 2017

Is abortion a human rights issue?

States’ obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights include areas of sexual and reproductive health and autonomy. Where access to safe and legal abortion services are unreasonably restricted, a number of women’s and girls’ human rights may be at risk. These include:

What is Human Rights Watch’s position on abortion?

Human Rights Watch believes that decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant woman without interference by the state or others.

The denial of a pregnant woman's right to make an independent decision regarding abortion violates or poses a threat to a wide range of human rights. Any restriction on abortion that unreasonably interferes with a woman's exercise of her full range of human rights is unacceptable.

Governments should take all necessary steps, both immediate and incremental, to ensure that women have informed and free access to safe and legal abortion services as an element of women's exercise of their reproductive and other human rights.

What are the health consequences of unsafe abortions?

Complications from abortion are rare when performed by a skilled health care provider in sanitary conditions, but unsafe abortions pose a high risk of complications. Recent evidence indicates that between 8 percent to 18 percent of maternal deaths around the world are due to unsafe abortion, and estimates of the number of abortion-related deaths in 2014 ranged from 22,500 to 44,000.

Nearly all deaths and morbidity from unsafe abortion occur in countries where abortion is severely restricted. Lack of legal access to abortion often leads women to seek abortion services from unskilled providers or under unhygienic conditions, exposing them to a significant risk of death or injury.

According to the WHO, major life-threatening complications from unsafe abortion are hemorrhage, infection, and injury to the genital tract and internal organs.

Do restrictive abortion policies reduce the rate of unsafe abortions?

No, in fact restrictive abortion policies are associated with higher rates of unsafe abortions. According to a 2014 UN report, “The average unsafe abortion rate was more than four times greater in countries with restrictive abortion policies in 2011 (26.7 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 years) than in countries with liberal abortion policies (6.1 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 years).” The WHO has found that removing restrictions reduces maternal mortality from unsafe abortion.

What have UN experts and agencies said about criminalization of abortion?

UN experts and agencies consistently call for the full realization of sexual and reproductive rights, including access to safe, legal abortion. This includes the UN “treaty bodies,” which are expert groups that monitor states’ compliance with international human rights treaties. For example:

  • The CEDAW Committee, which monitors compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), said in a 2014 statement: “Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity. As such, States parties should legalize abortion at least in cases of rape, incest, threats to the life and/or health of the mother, or severe foetal impairment, as well as provide women with access to quality post-abortion care, especially in cases of complications resulting from unsafe abortions. States parties should also remove punitive measures for women who undergo abortion.” It has made similar recommendations to many governments when it reviews their compliance with the treaty. The recommendations made in these “concluding observations” typically call on governments to legalize abortion in the circumstances noted above, and decriminalize in all cases.
  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged governments to decriminalize abortions in all circumstances.
  • The UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights have also called for an end to blanket prohibitions on abortion.
  • All of these treaty bodies, and others, have called on governments to remove barriers to abortion services, and ensure access to safe and legal abortion.

UN special rapporteurs focusing on a variety of human rights issues have called for decriminalization of and access to abortion services.