CEDAW Committee Faces More Pushback From Countries on Abortion

The committee in charge of overseeing state compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) concluded its latest round of meetings, pressing all eight delegations under review on their abortion policies even though the treaty is silent on the subject. Dominica, Armenia, Haiti, Cameroon, Libya, Rwanda, Germany and Guatemala were each questioned on the issue when the committee met in Geneva last month.

In what has become standard practice for the CEDAW committee, members attempted to forge links between high maternal mortality figures and illegal or clandestine abortion in order to pressure states to change their laws.

Committee members pressed Rwanda to hold public debates on its abortion laws and asked if there were any plans related to abortion for girls. The Rwandan representative fired back, “Maybe we are caring more for those who are living now than about planning to kill babies-to-come.”

Prior to the meeting, the committee sent written questions to delegations and asked Cameroon to account for how they have implemented CEDAW’s previous recommendations to “review the abortion law and increase access to, and availability of, contraception.” In its written response, the government of Cameroon chastised the committee for attempting to “elevate” abortion to the rank of a human right.

In addition to Cameroon and Rwanda, Haiti and Guatemala were also specifically told to review and amend their laws regarding abortion in the committee’s concluding recommendations.

Abortion is not mentioned in the treaty and CEDAW committee members maintain officially that the treaty is abortion-neutral, but delegations often go along with the committee’s line of questioning on abortion by providing data and answering queries on the subject during their reviews with the understanding that the questions are not based upon obligations of the treaty, but on committee members’ personal interpretations of treaty.

While the committee claims neutrality on abortion, the committee has taken it upon itself to reinterpret this hard-law treaty to include abortion in the treaty’s provision which calls for a right to health. For further evidence one need look no further than the recently-released CEDAW committee annual report which details the reviews of 16 countries in 2008. Nine of those countries were pressed to liberalize or amend their abortion laws.  In the case of Slovakia, the CEDAW committee went further and criticized the state for protecting the right of health care workers to object to performing abortions as a matter of conscience.

As one of the only a handful remaining countries that has not ratified CEDAW, the United States (US) has come under increasing pressure to do so. New US President Barack Obama has already indicated that he would push for ratification. Proponents of US ratification, like pro-abortion US Senator Barbara Boxer, remain adamant that abortion is not part of CEDAW, despite evidence that CEDAW committee members think otherwise.

The CEDAW committee will next meet in New York in July to review Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Denmark, Guinea Bissau, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Japan, Liberia, Spain, Switzerland, Timor L’Este and Tuvalu.  Of those countries, four have already been sent preliminary queries regarding abortion.

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