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Iran: Repeal “Crippling” New Anti-abortion Law – UN Experts

GENEVA (16 November 2021) UN human rights experts* today called on Iran to repeal a wide-ranging new law that severely restricts access to abortion, contraception, voluntary sterilization services and related information, in direct violation of women’s human rights under international law.

The ‘Youthful Population and Protection of the Family’ law, which aims to boost the fertility rate, was ratified by Iran’s Guardian Council on 1 November in “clear contravention of international law,” the experts noted. The new law also contains a vaguely formulated provision in article 61 which states that if carried out on a large scale, abortion would fall under the crime of “corruption on earth” and would carry the death penalty.

“The consequences of this law will be crippling for women and girls’ right to health and represents an alarming and regressive U-turn by a government that had been praised for progress on the right to health,” the experts said.

They expressed their disappointment that instead of repealing laws that discriminate against women, or adopting the outstanding yet much needed bill on protection of women against violence, “the Iranian Government is taking further steps to use criminal law to restrict the rights of women, for the sake of increasing the number of births, which will effectively force many women and girls to continue unwanted pregnancies to term which would be inherently discriminatory.”

“It is shocking to see the extent to which the authorities have applied criminal law to restrict women’s fundamental rights,” the experts said. “This law violates the rights to life and health, the right to non-discrimination and equality, and the right to freedom of expression by making it illegal to access a range of reproductive health services and share information on reproductive rights, which amounts to the instrumentalization of women’s bodies and their reproductive capacity.”

The new law severely restricts the already-limited exemptions to the Penal Code ban on abortion. It will put the final decisions on therapeutic abortion – in case of threat to the life of the pregnant woman or foetal anomalies – in the hands of a panel consisting of a judge, a medical doctor and a forensic doctor rather than on the pregnant women supported by the medical doctor.

“Data clearly shows that criminalising the termination of pregnancy does not reduce the number of women who resort to abortion,” the experts said. “Instead, it forces women to risk their lives by undergoing clandestine and unsafe procedures.” According to official data an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 illegal abortions are performed in Iran every year. Unsafe abortions has been recognized as a form of gender-based violence under international law.

The law also prohibits free distribution of contraceptive goods and imposes a ban on voluntary sterilizations for men and women, aside from very exceptional cases, a move that will disproportionately impact women in situations of marginalization and victims of sexual violence.

Antenatal screening tests will be restricted, and the health ministry will establish a system to collect information on everyone who goes to a health centre for fertility treatment, pregnancy, delivery and abortion – a move apparently designed to expand the monitoring of pregnancies and discourage abortions.

“Restricting the access of women to free contraception goods and services will lead to unwanted pregnancies and high maternal mortality,” the experts warned. “We will closely monitor the impact of this law on maternal deaths and ensure accountability for failure to act with due diligence to prevent the death of women and girls with risk pregnancies, or the death of those that undergo unsafe abortions.”

“Access to safe and legal abortion is critical to ensure fundamental rights of women to life, autonomy, agency and to physical and mental health,” the experts said. Women denied safe abortion procedure can incur mental and physical suffering that can constitute a violation of their human rights. Human Rights bodies have long acknowledged that the denial of abortion services through the criminalization of abortion or through barriers and delays in access to lawful services is a form of gender-based violence, that can in certain circumstances constitute cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment and may amount to torture.

“We urge the Government to immediately repeal the law on ‘Youthful Population and Protection of the Family’ and to take measures to end the criminalization of abortion and to ensure that all women can access all necessary health services, including sexual and reproductive health care, in a manner that is safe, affordable, and consistent with their human rights,” the experts said.

* The experts: Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Melissa Upreti (Chair), Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health ; Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Irene Khan , Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression

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