Founded in 1992, the Center for Reproductive Rights has increased access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and reliable information about reproductive health and human rights to women in more than 50 countries. Although the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, and the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, led to substantial progress toward understanding women’s reproductive rights as fundamental human rights, lack of power, according to Center president Nancy Northup, remains a huge obstacle facing many women. In countries where women do not have strong social, economic and political standing, it is difficult for them to claim their rights and have the government take them seriously. In the case of preventable maternal deaths, for example, hundreds of thousands of women die each year in connection with pregnancy and childbirth. Although the interventions that work are known, governments fail to act on them primarily because women’s needs are not seen as sufficiently important. Another continuing obstacle is religious fundamentalism in countries that have patriarchal views about a woman’s place in the world. Where these views are introduced into the legal system and the political system, it remains extremely difficult for women to receive equal treatment in society and, as part of that equality, to have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare.
The Center has, among its many and varied accomplishments, won groundbreaking cases in the U.S., foreign courts, and regional and international human rights bodies on issues including contraception, abortion, sex education and coercive sterilization. For example, the Center negotiated a settlement with Mexico on behalf of a young rape victim who was denied a lawful abortion; this marked the first time a Latin American government acknowledged that access to legal abortion is a human right. The work of the Center is built around the guiding principle that reproductive rights are fundamental rights that all governments must protect, respect and fulfill. The Center builds on that from a government’s own agreements at UN conferences about women’s rights and populations, but also from a government’s adherence to international human rights treaties. Using international treaties on social and economic rights, on civil and political rights, on women’s rights, and on freedom from race discrimination and torture, the Center develops arguments and works with its partners on the ground and at the international level to hold governments accountable for their human rights commitments. And, although the framework for human rights is obviously a global one, confronting issues within a national context can be extremely problematic. In some countries, for example, there may be an interest in ensuring that women have as many children as possible, while another country may have policies designed to limit the number of children that a woman can have. In both cases, women are being treated as instrumentalities of the state, rather than as human beings deserving of the dignity and respect that allows them to make their own decisions regarding the number and spacing of their children. So, at one extreme, the Center has cases in the European Court of Human Rights about Roma women who have been sterilized without their consent, and a case in Peru about a woman who is HIV-positive being sterilized without her consent. At the other extreme, the Center is handling a case in the Philippines where, in the city of Manila, government health clinics and modern methods of birth control have been banned. As a result, poor women cannot get the contraceptives they need to prevent unintended pregnancies.
The Center has been the moving force behind a number of important judicial decisions made at the national level and in international human rights courts, including bringing the first case (from Peru) on access to abortion before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In that groundbreaking case, the Committee declared that denying a woman access to a therapeutic abortion was cruel and degrading treatment — the equivalent of torture. Over the past ten years, the Center also worked with its partners in Nepal in moving that country away from a ban on abortion in all circumstances to a recognition that the government has an affirmative responsibility to pay for poor women’s abortions. As a result, the Nepalese government was required to set up such a fund. The Center currently has two groundbreaking cases pending before the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the first time that cases have been brought before CEDAW on the right to emergency obstetrics care and the right to access abortion. In one case, a young Peruvian woman who had been raped and tried to commit suicide was denied access to an abortion in a hospital even though it was needed if there was any hope of reversing problems from her spinal injury. A month later she miscarried, but it came too late and she was left a quadriplegic. Her case argues that denial of this therapeutic abortion was a denial of her right to equal treatment, and a denial based on sex. In the other case, in which a Brazilian woman died in childbirth, the Center seeks to demonstrate how the government’s systemic failure to address the need for women to access emergency obstetrical care is also a violation of human rights.