• Press Release

Global: Human rights defenders and health workers who face widespread abuse and criminalization for defending the right to abortion must be better protected

November 27, 2023

Women take part during the International Safe Abortion Day in Bogotá, Colombia, 28 September 2023
(Chepa Beltran/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
People who are defending the right to abortion and providing essential services are being stigmatized, intimidated, attacked and subjected to unjust prosecutions, making their work increasingly difficult and dangerous to carry out, said Amnesty International in a new report out today.

The report, An Unstoppable Movement: A global call to recognize and protect those who defend the right to abortion, reveals how many healthcare workers, activists, advocates and accompaniers around the world face abuse, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for supporting the right of women, girls and all people who can become pregnant to access abortions. Such an environment is prevalent including in countries where abortion is partially allowed by law. It is having a chilling, silencing and stigmatizing effect on all those defending access to abortion, as they live in constant fear of being attacked and prosecuted for providing abortion care, whether it is legal or not. It is also creating major barriers for women, girls and all people who need abortion care – particularly those who are most marginalized.

“The right to abortion is not an opinion. It is a matter of international standards and international legal norms. It is a right underpinned by many human rights, including the rights to physical and mental integrity, the right to health and the right not to be unlawfully and arbitrarily killed through the withdrawal of safe services. It is essential for the dignity of all women and girls, and of everyone who can become pregnant. Those who defend and enable exercise of that right deserve our respect and protection. Yet, many States around the world persist with policies of over-regulation and criminalization that generate hostile, even perilous environments for those who defend the right to abortion,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Anti-abortion rhetoric, policies and laws stamp a target on the backs of health workers and advocates. Stigmatized, abused, discriminated against, criminalized, imprisoned, even killed – the rights of those who defend the right to abortion are under attack. But their human rights to work without fear, to provide essential services without threat, to exercise their professional skills without discrimination, must be respected and protected.” – Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

“In the United States, those who defend the right to abortion, including healthcare workers, advocates, educators, and clinic escorts, are in the crosshairs of the anti-rights movement, facing threats, intimidation, violence, and even death, said Tarah Demant, National Director of Programs at Amnesty International USA. “The United States, like governments around the world, need to ensure that those defending the right to abortion are safe, and that all people have full access to the right to abortion.”

Isolated and unsupported

While progressive abortion law reform continues, anti-abortion regressions impede access with the promotion of disinformation and toxic narratives – smear campaigns that hijack public discourse and agitate against the right to abortion and against those who defend it.

“For many sexual and reproductive health providers this harassment and abuse has come to feel like just part of the job, but we cannot allow this to become the new normal,” said Sarah Shaw, MSI Reproductive Choices’ Head of Advocacy. “Enough is enough. It’s time to recognize abortion providers as human rights defenders and stand up for those who put their lives on the line to make choice possible.”

The report, based on close to 50 interviews with abortion rights defenders from all over the world, features stories and information shared by frontline and grassroots organizations, and reflects the concerns raised by global healthcare organizations, who last year launched a call to protect these defenders. Those interviewed, in particular healthcare workers, explained how they often feel isolated and unsupported. Their work is not recognized, and they are left fearing the threat of criminalization, harassment, stigmatization, verbal threats and violence, as well as ostracization and burnout in the workplace. Some health workers have seen their personal details leaked online, while others are unsure whether they’ll make it home safely. For example:

  • Venezuelan teacher and human rights defender Vannesa Rosales was criminalized for helping a woman and her 13-year-old daughter get access to abortion.
  • In Poland, Justyna Wydrzyńska, a member of Abortion Without Borders and the Abortion Dream Team, was convicted for helping a woman access abortion pills earlier this year – a safe way of terminating a pregnancy.
  • In Ghana, an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights said service providers have experienced physical violence and public shaming by members of the public, for educating people about contraception.

“Violence against frontline sexual and reproductive health care providers is something that continues to happen unabated; it’s about time the voices, experiences and concerns of our frontline defenders are heard,” said Alvaro Bermejo, International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Director General. “As anti-abortion authorities around the world continue to deploy stigma, fear and hate-speech against those seeking and those providing services, we, as institutional champions of sexual and reproductive health and rights, commit to matching the courage of our frontline defenders.”

Caught in conflict

Criminalizing abortion is the biggest contributing factor to the estimated 35 million unsafe abortions happening every year. It means healthcare staff are constantly caught in the conflict between the ethical and professional duty to provide the best available care and being criminally liable if they do not follow harmful laws.

“Abortion is essential healthcare. Yet, as healthcare providers we are routinely faced by discrimination and violence for simply doing our jobs,” – Dr Anne-Beatrice Kihara, President of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO).

“Restrictive abortion laws and attitudes cause harm. They create hostile environments that feed abortion-related stigma that smears healthcare providers and those that seek abortion care as criminals. We all know colleagues, unfortunately, who have battled with stigma, career blocking, intimidation, physical attack, imprisonment, and even in the most extreme cases health care providers have been murdered.”

Midwives are also put at risk, even though they are trusted health professionals that women turn to for help when pregnant, in communities, clinics and hospitals.

“A midwife’s duty of care includes supporting access to abortion care and upholding the right to freely make decisions about reproductive health,” said Sally Pairman, Chief Executive of International Confederation of Midwives. “Midwives cannot be subject to undue risk, violence, abuse or personal harm for doing their job. State and health authorities have the duty to ensure that all health workers, including midwives, are protected.”

Recognizing the work of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs)

“Those who defend the right to abortion are ensuring and enabling access to essential services. That they should be made to do so in the face of hostility is unacceptable. It is imperative that they be protected by States and authorities, so they are able to carry out their work without reprisals,” said Agnès Callamard.

“As part of our global campaign, Amnesty International calls on states around the world to fulfil their obligations to protect the right to safe and legal abortion for all, and to respect and protect the right of all those who defend the right to abortion.”

In addition, Amnesty International is calling for States to recognize that the role of WHRDs working on access to safe abortion is legitimate and integral to the promotion and realization of sexual and reproductive rights; and ensure WHRDs working on access to safe abortion, are not criminalized, intimidated or attacked, and bring those who attack them to justice.

It’s time for WHRDs to be protected and fully supported in the workplace, as Dr Guillermo Ortíz, an obstetrician from El Salvador and Ipas advocate, can testify.

“I believe it is important for doctors to make abortion accessible in countries with restrictive laws. We are the ones providing care to the poorest women, those most likely to suffer harms. We are at the forefront of healthcare, and we must be part of the movement for safe access to abortion. Abortion is healthcare.” – Dr Guillermo Ortíz, an obstetrician from El Salvador and Ipas advocate