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Why Reproductive Rights Matter in an Open Society

A 14-year-old girl is raped. She tries to get an abortion. Hospital after hospital turns her away. A Roma woman giving birth is sterilized. She finds out only years later. Her doctor says it was because her people are lazy.

Deciding whether and when to become a parent is one of the most private and important decisions a person can make. For women, in particular, the ability to control decisions pertaining to their reproductive health means they control their own destiny. For this reason, reproductive rights are an essential component of an open society, without which women cannot enjoy full equality.

In recent weeks the European Court of Human Rights handed down two critical judgments on reproductive rights: protecting access to abortion after rape and prohibiting involuntary sterilization. The facts are very different, but both cases underscore the importance of personal autonomy in matters of reproduction and demonstrate why protecting reproductive rights underpins an open society.

P. and S. v. Poland

P. was fourteen when a classmate raped her. She reported the crime to police and sought medical care, but was never offered emergency contraception. Weeks later P. discovered she was pregnant. Determined to end her pregnancy, P. endured harassment and humiliation while navigating some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.

Hospitals in her hometown of Lublin refused to provide her medical care. One doctor told P. she needed a priest not an abortion. The hospital in Warsaw also refused, and P.’s identity was leaked to anti-abortion protestors and journalists. P. and her mother went to the police for help. Instead, they were interrogated for hours and P. was placed in a juvenile detention center.

Finally the Ministry of Health intervened. P. and her mother made the long journey to yet another hospital in Gdansk. By then, P. was just a few days shy of Poland’s 12-week cut off for abortions in cases of rape. The hospital agreed to perform the abortion but refused to admit P. as a patient. P. and her mother were told to leave as soon as the abortion was over.

The Court ruled that Poland’s actions violated several Articles in the European Convention of Human Rights including the right to privacy (Article 8), the right to liberty and security (Article 5), and the prohibition against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3). The Center for Reproductive Rights, which represented the plaintiffs before the Court, provides a more detailed explanation of the case and how the ruling sets new precedent regarding the sexual and reproductive rights of young women.

I.G. and Others v. Slovakia

When pregnant Roma women were admitted into Krompachy Hospital in eastern Slovakia to give birth they were segregated into special “Gypsy rooms” and made to use separate bathrooms. But the discrimination they faced in the hospital ward paled in comparison to what happened once they were under anesthesia.

The three women in this case were all sterilized against their will after undergoing a caesarean delivery. Their stories corroborate a documented pattern of deceit and coercion at the hospital: evidence of nurses obtaining last-minute “authorization” for sterilization after administering anesthesia to a patient and doctors misleading or threatening women after the fact so that they would retroactively sign “consent” papers. In some cases women were never told they were sterilized, and only found out years later.

Criminal investigations into the sterilization practices at Krompachy Hospital went nowhere. Prosecutors maintained that the women’s health had not been harmed and their rights had not been infringed, while doctors involved argued that sterilization was necessary because Roma did not know “the value of work.” In its ruling the Court found that Slovakia had violated the Convention, namely the right to privacy (Article 8) and the prohibition against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3).

Reproductive Rights and Open Society

Women and girls on the margins—especially teenagers, Roma, women with disabilities, poor women, women engaged in sex work or who use drugs, and women living with HIV—are most at risk of having their reproductive rights infringed upon. Human rights organizations need to be engaged in efforts to protect women’s reproductive rights. We need to empower women and girls so they can be their own best advocates.

There are still so many places in the world where women do not have the right to make decisions pertaining to their reproductive health. Instead, the authorities decide when a woman should or should not have children. She has no control over the path her life will take. Everyone except the woman herself is able to decide what is in her best interest. She either is too young, too irresponsible, too incompetent, too lazy, or too poor to decide whether to end a pregnancy or have a child.

When women control their reproductive destiny it helps dismantle the idea that their gender exists only to care for others. Women are given the prerogative to lead their lives as they wish: To go to school. To pursue a career. To stay at home. To raise a family. To not have children or to have a number of their choosing. This can only happen when reproductive rights are acknowledged as human rights and are not sidelined to the margins of the movement.

This is why the Open Society Foundations has supported efforts to protect and defend reproductive rights around the world. These cases would not have been possible without the work of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Slovakia, and we hope that the decisions will have a ripple effect on other human rights bodies and courts around the world.

The promise of an open society is a promise of equality. For women this means being able to control decisions pertaining to reproduction: whether she is a 14-year-old rape survivor in Poland trying to end an unwanted pregnancy or a Roma woman in Slovakia who was sterilized against her will. Without reproductive rights, women will never experience what an open society means. 

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