About a month ago, on 19 October, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted its Concluding Observations on Spain (CRPD/C/ESP/CO/1). This is the first time this Committee monitors the application in Spain of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in December 2006 and in force since May 2008. Actually, Spain is the second country ever reviewed by the Committee, only preceded by Tunisia.
In relation to sexual and reproductive health:
17. The Committee takes note of Act 2/2010 of 3 March 2010 on sexual and reproductive health, which decriminalizes voluntary termination of pregnancy, allows pregnancy to be terminated up to 14 weeks and includes two specific cases in which the time limits for abortion are extended if the foetus has a disability: until 22 weeks of gestation, provided there is “a risk of serious anomalies in the foetus”, and beyond week 22 when, inter alia, “an extremely serious and incurable illness is detected in the foetus”. The Committee also notes the explanations provided by the State party for maintaining this distinction.
18. The Committee recommends that the State party abolish the distinction made in Act 2/2010 in the period allowed under law within which a pregnancy can be terminated based solely on disability.
The Committee refers to the Organic Law 2/2010, of 3 March, on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy (Ley Orgánica 2/2010, de 3 de marzo, de salud sexual y reproductiva y de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo).
Only five days after the adoption of the aforementioned Concluding Observations, on 24 October, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover, presented his 2011 report (A/66/254) to the General Assembly. In his report, Mr. Grover affirms:
27. Criminal prohibition of abortion is a very clear expression of State interference with a woman’s sexual and reproductive health because it restricts a woman’s control over her body, possibly subjecting her to unnecessary health risks. Criminal prohibition also requires women to continue unplanned pregnancies and give birth when it is not their choice to do so. (…)
39. In some instances, civil legislation related to child welfare has been expanded to include punitive sanctions for prenatal drug exposure, where such exposure may provide a ground for the termination of parental rights and the removal of the child upon birth. (…)
41. Criminalization of conduct during pregnancy impedes access to health-care goods and services, infringing the right to health of pregnant women. Where women fear criminal prosecution, they may be deterred from accessing health services and care, as well as pregnancy-related information. For example, women may not seek antenatal services if they are faced with the risk of prosecution from transmitting HIV, which poses a risk to their health and the health of the foetus. This undermines public health objectives related to HIV, because women may refuse testing entirely if they face criminal penalties for transmission.
The report also refers to the findings of a study of 2002, ‘Hidden suffering‘, on disabilities caused by pregnancy and childbirth in less developed countries (para. 25):
(…) A further 5 million women and girls suffer short- and long-term injuries due to unsafe abortions, including haemorrhage; sepsis; trauma to the vagina, uterus and abdominal organs; cervical tearing; peritonitis; reproductive tract infections; pelvic inflammatory disease and chronic pelvic pain; shock and infertility.
Finally, in his set of recommendations, Mr. Grover calls upon States, among other things, to:
(h) Decriminalize abortion, including related laws, such as thoseconcerning abetment of abortion;
(n) Suspend/abolish the application of existing criminal laws to various forms of conduct during pregnancy, such as conduct related to treatment of the foetus, most notably miscarriage, alcohol and drug consumption and HIV transmission.
The human rights frame is relatively new in the realm of disability. The notion of sexual and reproductive rights and the use of human rights discourse to promote women’s rights started a few years before. I read the Concluding Observations on Spain and Mr. Grover’s report on the same day and I couldn’t help thinking that there wasn’t a smooth consistency between the two. While the Committee considers the fetus with a disability to be the rights holder at risk, the Special Rapporteur focuses on the rights of pregnant women. Will the idea of disability rights (or the interpretation by the UN Committee) change the notion of sexual and reproductive rights as we know it? This is a very thorny issue that I hope we will dare to address soon.