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Who has the right to liberty and privacy in the U.S.?

Women’s human rights are enshrined in globally recognized agreements — including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) — that require governments to respect, protect and fulfill women’s rights to liberty, autonomy, non-discrimination, bodily integrity and privacy. Increasingly in the United States, however, pregnancy or alleged pregnancies are being used as reasons to unlawfully discriminate against women and deprive them of their most basic rights and liberties. The fact that fetal rights are trumping those of women must be placed in the context of increased restrictions on abortion, an area where the U.S. is leading the charge and yet totally out of line with global practices.

In the U.S. women have been have been prosecuted for allegedly harming fetuses, embryos and even fertilized eggs. They have been forced to undergo caesarian sections or give birth shackled to their hospitable beds. In Indiana, Purvi Patel, who maintains that she experienced a miscarriage, was given a 20-year sentence for purportedly provoking her own abortion. The prosecution of women for using medications to end an unwanted pregnancy has been on the increase in numerous states including Arkansas, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Georgia. The risk is not only to individual women but to others who assist them. Jennifer Whalen, a mother of three who helped her own daughter have a safe abortion, was thrown into jail as a result. And a nurse in Arkansas was recently charged with performing an unlicensed abortion after she allegedly provided a woman with a drug to induce abortion.

{mosads}Since the Supreme Court decided in Roe v Wade that abortion was a private decision to be taken between a woman and her doctor, the assault on women’s rights has been ongoing. Various strategies have been used to regulate, limit and control when and if a woman may obtain an abortion. In the last four years, states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions. States like Texas (a state the same geographic size as the whole country of France) now only have 18 remaining clinics and under a new law eight of them could close. Mississippi only has one abortion provider and North Carolina just enacted yet another degrading 72-hour waiting period. And just this month, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reintroduced a 20-week abortion ban in the Senate—a bill that already passed in the House.

The practical implications of these restrictions is that it’s easier to get an abortion in some parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America (never mind Europe) than it is in the U.S. In Nepal, for example, the government runs a safe abortion program that includes outreach to local community groups to raise their awareness of the legality of abortions and allows for broad access to services. Ethiopia has integrated medical abortion into its comprehensive abortion care program and has decentralized services to the community level. In Mexico City, abortions are readily available and are free under its national health insurance plan. In most European countries, there are far fewer restrictions on abortion and they are publicly funded.

On International Women’s Day this year the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that access to abortion is a fundamental human right. On June 6, they went one step further stating that prohibiting abortions resulting from rape and incest and refusing to provide free health coverage for abortions resulting from rape amounts to torture. Would the U.S. make the same declaration?

The evidence is clear: pregnancies only happen in female and female-identified bodies and once you become pregnant, you have no rights. We must reframe the onslaught on women’s privacy, liberty and dignity as what it truly is: cruel and unusual punishment that inflicts pain, humiliation and suffering on women. It is torture — characterized by physical abuse, lack of privacy, forced medical procedures, and denial of treatment.

It’s time for the United States to lead of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, not lag behind.

Hessini is director of Community Access at Ipas, an international reproductive health organization in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, board chair of the Global Fund for Women and a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project.

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