After Tragedy, a Successful UN Test Case in Peru for Reproductive Rights

Fifteen years ago in Lima, Peru a 17-year-old girl, K.L., was told her unborn fetus had anencephaly. The birth defect meant the baby would be born without a forebrain and carrying to term would put K.L.’s life in danger. In instances such as this the Peruvian government allowed abortions but the public hospital refused to perform the procedure despite their own doctors recommending it. The hospital’s claim: the regulations for providing the service were not clear. K.L. was forced to deliver the baby and watch it die only four days later.

This case came to international attention when the mother brought her complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2005.  A decade later, it has finally been resolved. In an historic decision, the Human Rights Committee, which oversees countries’ compliance with the landmark 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Freedom, sided with KL and recommended that the government of Peru provide KL compensation. Earlier this week, the government in Peru announced that it would abide by the decision.

It may be too little, too late for the woman being compensated, for being denied a medically-advised, legal abortion in Peru, but her tragedy could set a precedence for public health justice.

K.L.’s case is not an isolated one. This tug-of-war between sound medicine and policy regulations continues to be a problem around the world.  Reproductive rights and services, even if legal, are inaccessible or non-existent in both wealthy and poor nations for a variety of reasons, not just lack of clear regulations. The USA is obviously no exception.

To its credit, the UN human rights apparatuses have been relatively consistent on their rulings in abortion cases in the last 15 years. The UN Human Rights Committee has kept the issue of access to safe abortions on the radar of countries like Chile, for example. In his July 2014 review of the country’s report on human rights, Committee chair Nigel Rodley noted that, “abortion issues remained a problem, and the Committee hoped that the draft bill would go forward, and include the cases of incest.”

The language here may not seem strong, but the message is clear: we can’t tell you to legalize abortions, but we are saying they’re happening in your country and legalizing them would help make them safer for women.

Now that Peru has agreed to compensation to a young women denied her legal right to abortion, other countries could take notice. We may also see more complaints filed from South America and other countries around the world. It also begs the question whether cases could be filed from certain parts of the U.S. and what the American government would do if one of the states was confronted by the UN on the issue?

The gap between regulations and sound public health, especially women’s reproductive rights, is often a large one that only gets exposed when unfortunate cases like K.L.’s come up.With the precedent set, there is a good possibility that UN human rights bodies may increasingly set their sites on women’s access to safe and legal access to abortion.