Because Reproductive Rights are Human Rights

In April of 2018, the Department of State issued its annual congressionally mandated report on human rights practices in countries across the globe with a notable absence: there was no mention of women’s and girls’ reproductive health or rights.  

“This White House is attacking women by erasing them,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) declared at a press conference on the steps of the Capital. Surrounded by reproductive health and human rights supporters, Clark joined Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to announce the introduction of the Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights Act, which would require the U.S. State Department to include reproductive rights in its annual human rights reports and consult with reproductive health and rights organizations in local communities to gather accurate information.

Unlike previous reports, which have documented the status of human rights and worker rights in nearly 200 countries and territories, the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices made no mention of rates of unsafe abortions, denials of family planning information, current research on maternal mortality or discrimination and violence against women in health care settings. The recently-issued 2018 report again failed to document reproductive rights violations around the world. 

Since 2011, similar human rights reports have contained a subsection on reproductive rights, which the Trump administration has now replaced with a new subsection titled “Coercion in Population Control.” For many of the country reports in 2017, all that this new subsection contains is the following statement: “There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.”

Gone is the in-depth research about the many ways that governments in countries around the world are blocking women’s and girls’ access to reproductive health care services, including contraception and abortion.

“We are introducing this legislation because it is not up to the Trump Administration to pick and choose which rights matter to the health and well-being of billions of women worldwide,” Sen. Menendez told the crowd. “We must be unequivocal: Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights include reproductive rights.”

The State Department’s annual reports on the human rights practices in countries around the globe are a critical source of factual information for Congress when making appropriations and policy decisions. Immigration judges and asylum officers also use the reports to make asylum decisions for women feeling human rights abuses in their home countries.

As in other areas, such as the Trump administration’s decision to cease collecting information about the gender wage gap, the refusal to conduct research and report on women’s reproductive rights in the annual human rights report reflects an attempt to obscure and deny the oppression of women.

“Women around the world are subjected to gender-based violence as a tool of war, criminalized for seeking access to abortions and coerced into pregnancy by draconian laws that violate the autonomy all human beings deserve to have over their bodies,” Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, said at the press conference in support of the Act. “When we erase this critical data from the official record at the State Department, we send women worldwide back into the shadows.”

The Trump administration has achieved this erasure by eliminating the government officials who might do this research or push back against its elimination. The administration has refused to appoint an ambassador-at-large to lead the Office of Global Women’s Issues and refused to fill other vacancies in the office. The administration has also withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council and refused to accept consensus language on sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. resolutions; just this week, in negotiations with the Commission on the Status of Women, the Trump administration attempted to remove “gender” from UN human rights documents.

“This bill will ensure that the U.S. State Department includes comprehensive reporting on reproductive rights in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said at the Capitol. The Center has twice sued the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act for refusing to release records about the erasure of reproductive rights from the human rights report.

“Access to reproductive healthcare has been recognized as a protected human right impacting women’s right to life, health, equality, non-discrimination and freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” Northup reminded the crowd, “and governments do not get to pick and choose whose rights will be respected.”

Watch the Full Press Conference:


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.