Pro-life laws are ‘extremist hate,’ UN official says

shutterstock 280604696 United Nations headquarters in New York City. Via Shutterstock

Efforts to restrict abortion in the U.S. have drawn strong denunciations from a senior United Nations official, who called recent pro-life laws "torture" and "violence against women."

Kate Gilmore, an Australian who serves as U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the U.K. newspaper The Guardian that new laws limiting abortion in some U.S. states run afoul of the judgment of members of the human rights commission, who have made independent declarations that the "absolute prohibition" of abortion is "against human rights"

In an interview published June 4, Gilmore said "We have not called [pro-life laws in the United States] out in the same way we have other forms of extremist hate, but this is gender-based violence against women, no question," she said.

"It's clear it's torture – it's a deprivation of a right to health."

Gilmore was appointed to her current role in December 2015. She previously served as executive deputy secretary general of Amnesty International. Her time there coincided with its deeply controversial 2006 decision to end neutrality on abortion and to advocate abortion access as a human right. She has also held leadership roles at the United Nations Population Fund.

The U.S. has, at times, played a leading role in promoting legal abortion around the world, but at present many observers think the U.S. Supreme Court could alter or overturn precedents like the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade that mandate legal abortion across the U.S.

Laws banning abortion based on the detection of a fetal heartbeat have passed in several U.S. states, including controversial measures in Louisiana, Missouri, and Alabama. Challenges to the  laws could prompt a Supreme Court review of the issue at a federal level.

"This is a crisis. It's a crisis directed at women," Gilmore said of abortion restrictions in the U.S.  She also criticized Trump administration decisions to oppose language about reproductive health in some documents. "Reproductive health" is sometimes a euphemism for abortion.

At the same time, other U.S. states, including New York and Vermont, have proposed or passed extremely permissive legislation that would in effect allow abortion up through birth.

While Gilmore's strongly worded rhetoric surprised some observers, other U.N. officials and bodies have previously made similar comparisons, and linked opposition to abortion with torture and human rights violations.

In May 2014, members of the anti-torture committee pressed the Holy See, a signatory to the anti-torture convention, about Catholic opposition to abortion. One committee member claimed that the committee holds that laws that prohibit abortion in all circumstances violate the convention.

For several years before the successful 2018 push to remove the Republic of Ireland's pro-life constitutional amendment recognizing the equal right of a pregnant mother and her baby, leaders on U.N. committees overseeing human rights strongly criticized the Irish constitution.

They claimed that refusal of legal abortion to women was cruel and unusual punishment and discriminated on grounds of wealth or social class because some Irish women, and not others, could afford to travel to countries where abortion is legal.

In 2011 the United Nations Committee on the Convention Against Torture called on Ireland to change its abortion laws.

In July 2014, members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee in hearings reviewing the Republic of Ireland's adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contended that Irish abortion restrictions violated human rights agreements.

Since 2015, U.N. resolutions have encouraged member states to ensure that women and girls have access to "sexual and reproductive health-care services," which in the U.N.'s view includes the promotion of abortion.

These resolutions are not binding in international law, but do reflect internal U.N. priorities and policies. The repeated inclusion of "sexual and reproductive health" in resolutions could result, over a period of time, in the United Nations adopting abortion as a human right.

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While Gilmore acknowledged that human rights commission rulings are unenforceable, she said they can help pressure governments to act, The Guardian reported.

"The human rights system doesn't have an army, but what we know is many national courts follow that jurisprudence in their own rulings," she said.

Moves to promote abortion at the U.N. have been challenged by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, head of the Holy See's permanent observer mission to the U.N.

Auza rejected claims of a right to abortion by some U.N. leaders in his April 3, 2019 response to assertions of such a right at a spring meeting of the U.N. Commission on Population of Development.

"Suggesting that reproductive health includes a right to abortion explicitly violates the language of the (International Conference on Population and Development), defies moral and legal standards within domestic legislations and divides efforts to address the real needs of mothers and children, especially those yet unborn," Auza said.

Pope Francis has repeatedly likened the practice of abortion to the "hiring of a hitman" and decried "eugenicist" abortion campaings against the disabled.

The Holy See's diplomatic opposition to the global abortion agenda goes back decades, to the pontificate of St. John Paul II, who wrote a letter to the general secretary of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994. 

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In that letter, St. John Paul II voiced his strong concerns that the conference's draft document showed a "tendency to promote an internationally recognized right to access to abortion on demand, without any restriction, with no regard to the rights of the unborn."

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