UN Issues Compensation Order For Woman Denied Abortion

Daisy Cousens

“It’s time for Peru to clarify and implement its safe abortion guidelines.”

In a watershed case, Peru has compensated a woman for refusing to allow her to have a medically recommended abortion in 2001. The decision, announced late January, marks the first time a United Nations human rights body has held a government accountable for failing to ensure access to legal abortion services.

Pregnant at the age of 17, the woman, known only as K.L, was diagnosed as having a fetus with anencephaly (a condition in which the baby develops without large parts of the brain, skull and scalp) at 14 weeks. The condition is usually fatal for the infant and dangerous for the mother. As such, doctors indicated K.L should terminate the pregnancy to avoid risking her life.

Although abortion was legal in Peru at the time, a doctor at the hospital refused her, asserting regardless of the legality of the procedure, the State had not provided clear regulations for performing it. As such, K.L was forced to carry the pregnancy to term, give birth, and breastfeed the baby until it died four days later. The ordeal had consequences for both the patient’s physical and mental health.

As a response to the incident, K.L worked with human rights lawyers and filed a complaint with the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Committee. In 2005, the committee concluded Peru had violated several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to an effective remedy, prohibition of torture, inhuman treatment, right to private life, and right of minors to measures of protection. The Committee ordered K.L be provided with financial compensation, which is finally being fulfilled 10 years later.

“Of course, it would have been better had she not had to wait a decade to obtain it, but the important thing is that the wrong done to her has now been formally acknowledged,” stated committee member Sir Nigel Rodley, who was part of the committee responsible for the 2005 recommendation.

A pro-abortion march in Toronto last year.
A pro-abortion march in Toronto last year.

Although this case is groundbreaking in terms of raising awareness of women’s rights, South America has a long road ahead to clarifying the provision of abortion services, which will save many other women in similar situations to K.L. Chief executive officer of the US Centre for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, said while the decision to compensate K.L is encouraging, more needs to be done.

“It’s time for Peru to clarify and implement its safe abortion guidelines and continue improving access to critical reproductive health services for all women and girls,” she stated.

Nevertheless, K.L’s case indicates a positive shift in attitude towards the importance of legal and safe abortion, both by Peru and the United Nations. The precedent it has set will prevent an enormous amount of trauma for women in South America, and save a number of mothers’ lives in the process. Abortion needn’t be a shameful clandestine issue, and K.L’s compensation is another step towards eliminating this stigma.

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