Abortion Access in Conflict

Abortion Access in Conflict

The Global Justice Center is fighting to make sure that abortion services are offered as a matter of right to women and girls raped in conflict.

The Issue

Survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are at great risk in both pregnancy and childbirth. The conditions imposed by war—namely, malnutrition, anemia, malaria, exposure, stress, infection, disease, and lack of access to emergency contraception—greatly increase the risk of maternal mortality and injuries from childbirth. For this reason, access to safe abortion services in conflict situations is life-saving and essential. Despite the fact that pregnant women and girls in conflict zones have the right to access safe abortions under international humanitarian law, they are often denied this necessary medical treatment and instead suffer serious physical and mental harm as a result.

Legal Analysis

Armed conflict is governed by international humanitarian law (IHL), which protects victims of armed conflict by enshrouding them with rights to ensure they receive appropriate care. Included in these are the rights to comprehensive and non-discriminatory medical care, as well as rights to be free from torture, cruel and inhuman treatment. While both men and women experience sexual violence in conflict settings, the physical consequences for both genders are different—necessitating different treatment. In cases of pregnancy, the rights protected by IHL require the option of abortion services. Importantly, the rights guaranteed by IHL apply irrespective of national abortion restrictions and the denial of abortions has been found in certain contexts to constitute torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

Advocacy

Our pioneering legal argument was the first of its kind to challenge the denial of abortion services to war rape victims as a violation of IHL’s right to non-discriminatory medical care. Since we developed this argument in 2010, we have pushed major donor countries and funders to change their policies and explicitly communicate to their grantees that their funds may, and indeed must, be used to provide the option of abortion to girls and women raped in war. To date, the governments of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France, the European Union (both the Commission and Parliament), the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary-General have all recognized that abortion is protected medical care under IHL. We are continuing to pursue full recognition of this right and ensure that this right is implemented on the ground.

Key Resources