Reproductive Rights are Human Rights, But Only a Reality for Some

By Susan Papp, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy, Women Deliver

This week, a whistleblower reported that women detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in the United States underwent hysterectomies without their consent. Involuntary sterilization is a shameful part of a long, dehumanizing history of white supremacy and racist agendas around the world. And while the United Nations considers forced, coerced, or otherwise involuntary sterilization a violation of fundamental human rights, many governments continue to trample on reproductive rights through coerced sterilization, barriers to modern contraception, and limiting access to safe abortion.

Racist and discriminatory policies have long prevented marginalized populations — immigrants, refugees, migrants, Black, brown, Indigenous, and people of color, unmarried mothers, people living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and religious minorities — from exercising their human rights to control when, how, or whether to have children. Conservative forces are becoming more brazen in their attempts to infringe on reproductive rights, and disturbingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing cover to undermine those rights. Bodily autonomy, choice, and consent, including access to contraception and safe abortion, are consistently under attack.

Coerced and involuntary sterilization extends beyond immigrant women at the ICE detention facility in the U.S. Alarmingly, in recent years, these inhumane practices have robbed the rights of detained Uighur and other minority women in Xinjiang, China; transgender people in Japan; intersex and people with disabilities in Australia; Rohingya women in Myanmar; women living with HIV in South Africa; and Indigenous women in Peru. Each of these coerced sterilizations — and there are countless more — suppress a particular population and restrict bodily autonomy.

Women Deliver infographic on the benefits of modern contraception
Women Deliver infographic on the benefits of modern contraception. Learn more at

Another way governments restrict bodily autonomy is by imposing barriers to modern contraception. A large and growing body of evidence confirms the economic, health, and social benefits of women’s ability to use modern contraception to plan and space pregnancies — but in many places access to modern contraception remains restricted. Barriers to contraception imposed by the Venezuelan government led to a rise in teenage pregnancy and HIV rates. Recently, Tanzania’s government publicly opposed birth control and barred advertisements from family planning organizations.

Meanwhile, other governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to roll back reproductive rights, with some curbing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare by deeming it “non-essential” under pandemic-related lockdowns. Consequently, millions of women have been prevented from accessing time-sensitive, potentially life-saving care. Experts estimate that disruptions to sexual and reproductive healthcare during the pandemic will result in an additional 50 million women with an unmet need for contraception, nearly 16 million additional unintended pregnancies, 2 million additional women experiencing a major obstetric complication, and one thousand additional maternal deaths.

Restrictions to abortion access are similarly punishing. Slovakia is debating legislation that would impose new barriers to accessing lawful abortion care, and harm women’s health and wellbeing. Last year Ecuador rejected an expansion of abortion rights by voting against a bill that would decriminalize abortion for rape victims. And just this week, the U.S. government proposed an unprecedented expansion of the global gag rule, a draconian policy that restricts U.S. foreign aid from supporting organizations that advocate for, provide, or council on abortion services. These policies have been proven to cause more unintended pregnancies, more unsafe abortions, and higher rates of maternal mortality.

Many priorities demand our attention and swift action — the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout, climate change disasters, and growing global extremism. Some might argue that safeguarding reproductive rights isn’t a top priority. But these issues are all connected, and we ignore their interdependence at the cost of stronger health systems, robust economies, and most importantly, the health and lives of girls and women.

That’s why, as advocates for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women around the world, Women Deliver is calling on the international community to investigate all claims of human rights abuses against reproductive rights and hold governments accountable.

Second, we call on local elected officials and national governments to end discriminatory policies that violate human rights and take strong action towards advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights. This includes expanded and affordable access to contraception, abortion healthcare, and equal protection under the law for girls and women.

Third, we know that women-focused civil society organizations (CSOs) are powerful agents of change. They are first responders in times of crises, community leaders, and bold advocates for reproductive rights. In fact, local women-focused CSOs led by women of color were the first to speak out against coerced sterilizations in ICE detention centers — just as they have been at the forefront of reproductive justice movements around the world. Decision-makers should ensure women-focused CSOs have the protections to operate freely, and are properly resourced to carry out their lifesaving work in all settings, including humanitarian settings.

The violations detailed in this week’s whistleblower report are frighteningly common. We know and have always known that girls and women, especially BIPOC and immigrant women, face ongoing and violent discrimination around the world, including the denial of their sexual and reproductive rights. These violations must end. A woman’s control over her own body must be legally protected and enforced — not just for some, but for all.

Women Deliver an unwavering advocate for girls and women. We believe that when the world invests in girls and women, everybody wins!