Photo credit: sanjitbakshi via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

UN Urges New York to Repeal Its “Restrictive” Abortion Laws


Yesterday, the United Nations told New York state senators that in order to more closely comply with “international human rights standards” they need to get rid of two of their state’s few abortion restrictions.

The UN urged state senators to pass the Reproductive Health Act, a bill which would strike down New York’s 24-week abortion limit and decriminalize self-induced abortions. The bill was approved by the state assembly in January, and if the state Senate does not pass it before the legislative session ends today, it will die.

Sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger, Bill S2796 argues that the current abortion laws on the books in New York are outdated:

During the decades since (Roe v. Wade) was decided, there have been numerous court decisions clarifying the scope of the right to abortion but, unfortunately, New York’s laws have remained outdated. Furthermore, it is clear that some provisions of New York law are unconstitutional and have proved burdensome to women seeking to assert their constitutionally protected right to an abortion.

In a letter signed by three rapporteurs, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the New York laws of violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR):

In this regard, we recall that criminalization of abortion and the failure to provide adequate access to services for the termination of an unwanted pregnancy constitute discrimination on the basis of sex, in contravention of ICCPR article 2. In its report to the Human Rights Council on women’s health and safety (A/HRC/32/44), the Working Group emphasized that criminalizing the termination of a pregnancy instrumentalizes women’s bodies, undercuts women’s autonomy and puts their lives and health at risk.

The human rights office condemned New York’s law for criminalizing certain abortions:

Under current New York law, a woman who attempts to induce her own abortion at any stage is considered to have committed a Class B criminal misdemeanour and a woman who ends her own pregnancy or has an abortion performed after 24 weeks’ gestation is considered to have committed a Class A criminal misdemeanour. Health care providers who perform abortions after 24 weeks are also criminally culpable.

The letter went on to urge the New York state Senate to pass the Reproductive Health Act in order to “bring New York State legislation regarding abortion more closely into compliance with international human rights standards as regards the right of women to sexual and reproductive health, physical integrity and nondiscrimination.”

However, there are actually no agreed upon “international human rights standards” which give women a right to unrestricted access to abortion, or even a right to abortion at all. The Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam), a pro-life and pro-family research institute, has pointed this out time and time again:

No global UN treaty contains the word “abortion,” nor can a “right” to abortion be inferred from the “ordinary meaning” of the words of any such treaty. Indeed, when treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) were negotiated, many nations had legislation outlawing abortion and they intended to leave those laws unaffected. Laws in many countries continued to protect the unborn or criminalize abortion long after the treaties at issue were ratified, and until recently, no one dared suggest that countries had somehow agreed (unbeknownst to their negotiators when the treaties were crafted and unbeknownst to the policy makers who ratified the documents) to alter core domestic legislation.

Notice that even the ICCPR, the treaty that the UN says that New York has violated by supposedly discriminating against women, does not grant them a right to abortion.

World Youth Alliance, an advocacy organization focused on human dignity, also notes the non existence of a right to abortion in ICCPR:

The ICCPR makes no mention of abortion, and the terms of treaties are to be understood in their ordinary meaning, not expansively (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 31). As many states limit or prohibit abortion, there is no customary law requiring that abortion be legal. Abortion is not a human right, and a UN committee can neither make it one nor “affirm” it as one.

Despite what the letter from the UN human rights office says, there is no internationally recognized right to abortion. Therefore, New York’s limits on abortion access are not violating any internationally accepted right to abortion –because there is none.

This case represents a concerning recent trend of the UN telling governments that their abortion regulations are unacceptable. Twice in the past year the UN has told Ireland that its abortion laws violate women’s rights.

Policymakers must stand strong and not allow the international bureaucracy to scare them into repealing laws protecting the unborn.

Photo credit: sanjitbakshi via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Andrea Moury

Andrea Moury is a regular contributor to

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