The principles of human rights give a central place to the values of autonomy and dignity. Critically discuss the meaning and significance of autonomy and/or dignity with reference to a specific problem dealt with in the course.
Human rights “recognise the inherent value of every individual, regardless of race, geographical location or gender.” (reference) These rights are based off of concepts of dignity, respect and equality and are present in all aspects of life and society (reference).
More specifically, the right that will be focused on in this essay is the right that all individuals must have the right to have control over an individuals own body, with the right to autonomy. Autonomy in the most common sense of the word depicts that individuals within society should be allowed the right to seek and carry out their lives in line with ones personal beliefs, interpretations and aspirations (reference). It is imperative that all individuals, (in this example more specifically females) within our society and around the rest of the world are provided access to these rights, as they have significant beneficial impacts on individuals emotional and physical wellbeing.
The topic of abortion is a heavily disputed topic within communities and wider society and is also a contested subject in the realm of human rights discussions. This weight associated with this topic is due to the increased number of women around the world that have their right to autonomy violated as a result of their inability to access abortions. Commonly it is groups in power (families, government, medical staff) placing pressure and dominance over women making decisions about termination, impeding on their rights to autonomy. These pressures will affect and ultimately dictate the decision they make about their body and child, that will alter the course of their lives forever. It is because of this that removing a woman’s right to abortion is such an extreme violation of their rights (reference). Throughout the completion of this essay will cover topics of abortion and human rights (specifically for women), autonomy and abortion and discuss why this is so important for women through looking at Judith Thompsons ‘violinist’ example.
2. Abortion and Human rights
“The basic rights to freedoms to which all humans are entitled” (http://wwda.org.au/issues/unhrt/hrchart1/#:~:text=Introduction,and%20equality%20before%20the%20law.) This is legally binding statement put forth to dictate and protect the rights to which all humans within society, including women, are entitled to. More specifically human rights dictate that women have the right to “seek to terminate a pregnancy as often access to safe and legal services is severely limited (http://wwda.org.au/issues/unhrt/hrchart1/#:~:text=Introduction,and%20equality%20before%20the%20law.). Despite this, women around the world are limited in their ability to access this right. The accessibility for women varies from country to country, with states owning primary responsibility for advocating for and protecting their people’s human rights. States ability to enforce and provide access to these human right is what has resulted in many women having their rights violated in relation to their decisions and accessibility surrounding abortion. This is a direct contradiction of the laws put in place by the human rights treaty (reference). The right to autonomy, as mentioned above is a vital aspect of contemporary human rights. The ability of government bodies in power today to dictate a woman’s access to abortion is ultimaatley denying them of their autonomy, or makes their ability to access and benefit from the rights they are entitled to receive completely circumstantial (cook & dickens Indert work)
Negative social constructs engulf the topic of abortion within society, linking to it a stigma of shame and embarrassment, resulting in it often being an avoided (taboo) topic of conversation. This means that often women’s options and experiences in relation to abortion and termination are often silenced, and as a result, other women miss out on being educated about the topic. This lack of education, lack of discussion and lack of social acceptance is what has resulted in the misconception within society that the rates of abortion are low within their society. However in societies around the world, this is not the case. Between the years of 2015 to 2019 across the globe, of ‘121 million unexpected or unwanted pregnancies, 73 million (61%) ended in termination’ (https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide#). In one of the biggest, more progressive countries in the world, the USA, abortion laws and their accessibility differs from state to state. In the USA alone, within this time period, ‘32 of every 1000 unwanted pregnancies ended in abortion’ (reference). Contrasting these numbers, in Australia and New Zealand where access to abortion is more consistent and accessible between states, ‘15 per 1000 unwanted pregnancies resulted in abortion’ within this same time period (https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide#)). When looking at these two countries statistics on terminations for unwanted pregnancies it is telling that women who want or need to access an abortion due to unwanted pregnancy will fight to access the services they need regardless of state laws or legislations where they live.
While these statistics shine a light onto numbers of medically noted abortions it does not account for the number of unmonitored, unsafe illegal abortions. For women living in a state or country where abortion is illegal, and women’s right to autonomy is being denied they are often left with no choice than to access an unsafe form of abortion, putting themselves at risk. The World Health Organisation stated that each year, “approximately 21.6 million unsafe or unauthorised abortions take place every year” (reference WHO) with almost 25% of these abortions leading to “serious illness or complications for the mother” (reference WHO).
3. Autonomy and Abortion
Around the world, women’s right to autonomy is impacted due to issues surrounding
abortion and human rights. Following on from information that has been previously given about American and Australia, some countries have complete bans on abortion. One of these countries is El Salvador, where it is illegal for a woman to access a safe medical termination regardless of the circumstances in which it is required. The consequences of seeking out these terminations are often serious for the mother and for the medical practitioner they see. For example, a person who performs an abortion (medical professional or otherwise) on a consenting woman, or a woman who induces herself into early labour to miscarriage may be imprisoned for up to eight years (reference). Furthermore, if a woman does not consent and receives an abortion from a doctor they may be given an extended sentence (reference). The harsh nature of these laws is what results in women participating in unsafe at home abortions using ““coat-hangers, rods, pills, fertilizers, soapy water and battery acids” (reference) putting themselves at risk as a result of a violation to their human rights and their autonomy. This example clearly dictates the impact that having a non-existent right to autonomy and no control over the right to “ones body and life” (reference UN rights) negatively impacts women’s health and safety, with extreme repercussions on he individual life, in relation to mental and physical health and morality rates (reference). In situations like this it is easy to note the importance autonomy plays in an individual’s life.
Harsh abortion laws, as mentioned previously are not only restricted to countries with lower socio-economic standards. American and Australia both have had previous laws within their constitutions that dictated and restricted women’s right to abortions despite these countries being viewed as more ‘progressive’ around the world. In New South Wales the ‘Abortion Law Reform Act’ that is currently in place was only introduced in 2019, in which it permits “abortions up to 22 weeks and permitting abortions after 22 weeks if two medical practitioners agree” (REFERENCE). Before this was put in place it would be necessary for women to gain the approval of multiple medical practitioners who would access the women’s physical and mental health before allowing them to access a termination (reference); This would in turn, undermine their autonomy by taking the control over the decision away from them. Restrictions to women such as this, is what enforces a negative stigma surrounding abortion in our society; instilling fear in women about their options if they do experience an unwanted pregnancy as doctors and government officials instill in themselves the power to make the decision for women.
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” (https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/freedom-interference-privacy-family-home-and-correspondence-or). This is what is stated in the international covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Article 17. This is violated across the world in many circumstances, one of those being in Australia, with the medical abortion pill not being introduced within the country until 2012, despite it being circulated around the world for 20 years earlier (reference). This medication, a vital progression in the completion of abortions for women, is listed on the World Health Organisations list of essential medicine, yet due to the misuse of an Australian Senator’s power being misused and abused the medication was restricted to enter into the Australian health system denying hundreds and thousands of women their right to autonomy and a method of abortion that could increase their health within the process by an astronomical amount (reference). This again supports the ideal that human rights violations are prevalent in all countries.
Ultimately, abortion laws over the years have updated from being virtually not present across the world, to being put in a position of power that leads to individuals trying to overpower and restrict others access to them. While still not at the point of entitling all individuals access to abortions without discrimination globally, progress is being made in an attempt to improve and progress the autonomy of women in relation to abortion.
4. Autonomy for women
The major human rights that relate to abortion include the right to not be forced into pregnancy, and the right to the highest standard of health and reproductive rights (reference). Within the United Nations declaration of Human Rights, it is stated that “every woman has the recognised right to the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health” (reference UN). In order for this to be true for women, access to medically safe and legal abortions within their states is essential. This does not just encompass accessing services, it includes autonomy. Abortion within the realm of human rights, links to the topic of health which means it should be possible for women to access a service that supports and helps their ‘health’. Restricting this is a direct violation of human rights as it is ultimately promoting a platform for unsafe terminations that puts women’s health on the line as they seek out other alternatives due to restrictions. Promoting this negative and unsafe ideology on the topic of abortion, as well as denying women’s right to terminations further denies their autonomy. Moreover, the lack of accurate medical information about abortion is limited due to rulings on the topic which therefore strips women of the ability to make informed decisions about their own bodies and physical health (reference). Conclusively all women have rights to access the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. In order for women to achieve this abortion laws need to be updated to make sure that resources are widely available to women of all ages.
As mentioned in the start of this essay, autonomy by definition is the “right or condition of self-government” (reference). This concept is imperative to understand when looking at it in relation to abortion and human rights. This is because if autonomy was the basis of the formation of all rules and legislation within our society, there would never be a question if an individual was ‘allowed’ to have an abortion, it would simply be known that women have the power over their own bodies and if they wished to seek out a termination it would be her right to access one. When viewing how abortion would be, should autonomy for women be allowed, it is easy to see how refusing women’s right to autonomy is a direct violation of her human rights. There are many ‘pro-life’ discussions that take place within today’s society, in which it is argued the foetus has the right to life that is greater than the autonomy, health and wellbeing of the mother (reference). Judith Jarvis Thompson in her writing ‘A defence of Abortion’ (1971) contrasts this ‘pro life’ idology, acknowledging that to an extent a woman’s autonomy must come before that of the foetus. Thompson in her work uses the example of being attached to a ‘famous violinist’ against your will. This example is given in an attempt to rationalise and support the idea of the importance of autonomy (reference). Thompson raises the idea that while the foetus does have a right to life, the abortion process is simply “dperiving the foetus of the non-consensual use of the pregnant body” (reference). There have been many disagreements on this topic with the argument being raised that the individual in Thompson’s example would have a moral obligation to keep the violinist they are attached to alive, and therefore have the same moral responsibility to keep their unborn child alive too, regardless of the consequences to the individual (reference singer). Thompsons example ultimately depicts to the reader that to ignore an individuals autonomy, is to cause harm and strip power without consent, ultimately violating their human rights.
While within this essay only avenues positive benefits of autonomy for the individual in relation to abortion are discussed it is important to briefly state that there are arguments for the negative aspects that autonomy may bring onto the individual in relation to terminations. For example, in a study conducted by blank it was identified that women interviewd often felt increased levels of stress and self-inflicted pressure to make the ‘right’ decision when given the free choice to decide between the termination or birth of their child. While this may be true it is important to note that many women may experience these pressures when discovering that they had conceived, and as a result of choosing abortion further experience negative impacts of their autonomy due to their inability to access what should be their basic human rights (reference).
Ultimately, human rights refer to and recognise the value in all individuals, blind to individuals’ race, location, gender and wealth, with central focuses on autonomy and dignity. In relation to the topic of abortion, when women are denied autonomy, their right to make decisions relating to their body and future are taken away, stripping them of their human rights. While it has been stated and discussed within the essay above that human rights violations in relation to abortion are present all around the world, (in some cases more extremely than others) it is important to understand the affects these violations have on the individual both physically and mentally, and why it is that these infringements are allowed to occur in a modern society. Autonomy for women is ultimately the way to guarantee that the basic human rights are being provided and met for the individual. Being autonomous would mean women have the ability to make intense medical decisions, without the interference or opinion of family, friends, government, or medical experts simultaneously freeing them from the social stigma and shame that is often circulated within societies. The works of academics such as Judith Jarvis Thompson support this ideal, and reiterate the concept that for human rights to be met around the world, it is women who must be granted autonomy when considering their options for the outcome of their pregnancy.