At the most recent session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) meetings in New York, committee members pressed countries on abortion in the guise of talking about maternal mortality, family planning and contraceptive prevalence. Lithuania, Nigeria, Finland, the United Kingdom and Slovakia were all questioned on their abortion laws during their reviews by the committee.
While abortion is not mentioned in the treaty, in recent years the CEDAW Committee has questioned more than 60 nations on their abortion legislation. The committee has even gone so far as to create their own “general recommendation” that reads abortion into the text even though the nations negotiated the treaty made sure that controversial issue was never mentioned. Delegations often go along with the committees’ line of questioning on abortion by providing data and answering queries on the subject during their reviews.
During Lithuania’s review, committee members pressed the government delegation on access to contraception and on proposed legislation that seeks to defend prenatal life and would pose restrictions on access to abortion. Japanese committee member Yoko Hayashi stated that governmental restrictions on abortion “contradict the full enjoyment of women’s reproductive health rights that are protected by CEDAW.” The CEDAW document is silent on “reproductive health rights.”
The United Kingdom was similarly taken to task by the CEDAW committee because of concerns over access to abortion in Northern Ireland. In response to committee queries over whether there was a possibility of changing the abortion legislation, the Irish representative responded that abortion was a matter of criminal law and that no change in legislation could occur in Northern Ireland without consent from all parties.
One committee member fired back that the government was not adequately addressing the abortion issue and that not taking action on the matter is “incompatible with obligations under the CEDAW convention.”
Sylvia Pimentel of Brazil took exception to Slovakia’s concordat with the Holy See, particularly on the right of health care workers to conscientiously object to performing or aiding in abortion. Pimentel claimed that it is “discriminatory to refuse to legally provide reproductive health services to women” and that CEDAW state parties “must refrain from obstructing women from pursuing their health goals.”
While the rulings of the Committee are supposedly non-binding, abortion activists have brought litigation throughout the world citing CEDAW Committee rulings in support of overturning laws against abortion. Such arguments helped convince the Colombian constitutional court to liberalize that country’s restrictions on the practice.
Under the topic of non-discrimination, CEDAW committee members questioned states on gay rights issues. During Finland’s review, committee members questioned legislation that prevented lesbian adoption. Slovakia was questioned on medically assisted reproduction and “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation” against lesbian women who wanted to undergo the procedure.
At the end of the month, official representatives of States parties to CEDAW are scheduled to elect 11 members of the Committee that will serve from January 2009 to December 2012. The CEDAW Committee will next meet again in Geneva in October to review the reports from Bahrain, Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mongolia, Myanmar, Portugal, Slovenia and Uruguay.