'Massive setback' if US abortion rights overturned: UN rights chief

Abortion rights campaigners participate in a demonstration in Washington, US, on May 14, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed nationwide access to abortion in the United States, would be contrary to international human rights standards, the UN's human rights chief said on Wednesday (May 18).

"Possible decisions taken at a national level in the US to revert more than five decades of protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights through Roe v. Wade are very concerning," Michelle Bachelet told an economic forum hosted by the Bloomberg news agency in Panama City.

"It could be a massive setback for women's rights, contrary to... international human rights standards," she said via videoconference.

A leaked draft opinion showed the US Supreme Court's conservative majority was seriously considering overturning the landmark ruling, igniting fury and protests across the United States.

Polls show that a majority of Americans support some form of access to abortion.

But in recent months, Republican-controlled states have taken steps to restrict abortion rights - with some seeking an outright ban of the procedure without any exceptions - and overturning Roe would grant them greater freedom to enact their policies.

Bachelet said overturning Roe could affect millions of women, "especially those with low income and belonging to racial and ethnic minorities".

"Evidence shows that highly-restrictive laws have a disproportionate impact on marginalised groups of women, in particular women living in poverty," she said.

"Globally, unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal death and evidence has shown that restrictive abortion laws do not reduce... abortion but drive it underground, making it more likely to be unsafe."

Bachelet also urged US states to ensure that women have options.

"What states cannot do is to impose a certain perspective," she said.

Instead, they must "ensure that all women according to their own beliefs, religion or decisions on their own autonomy, on their bodies... can have access to all the different options."

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