By Nikolay Hovhannisyan, University of Groningen LLM International Human Rights Law, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sex-selective abortions raise moral, legal, and social issues, reinforcing discrimination and sexist stereotypes towards women by devaluing females.[i] In countries like Armenia, where the underlying reason for sex-selective abortions is the widespread son preference, it implies the concept of valuing women only if they are able to produce sons. To tackle son preference in the country and normalize the sex-ratio, in 2016 the Government introduced a legal ban on sex-selective abortions. Whereas the harms of sex-selective abortions are severe, the question is whether such restriction is the most effective and acceptable tool in preventing the practice of sex-selective abortions from occurring and what the implications of such restriction are.
Abortions in Armenia are widely available and legal under article 10 of the Law on Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights, which provides that every woman has the right to an abortion, which is allowed during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy on request and from twelve to twenty-two weeks of pregnancy on health and social indications.[ii] The recent changes in the law implied a further ban on sex-selective abortion.[iii] In particular, the Armenian legislation tries to regulate and prevent the abortions solely by scrutinizing the parents’ decision to have a boy or a girl by implementing a new measure of compulsory questioning of women to scrutinize their motives for wanting to undergo an abortion and consequently, to refuse the abortions due to gender preference of the parents. While this might seem like a positive development at first, upon considering recent data suggesting that Armenia records the second-lowest female-to-male sex ratio at birth in the world after China,[iv] the law gives rise to few implications.
Firstly, this legislative effort, in essence, makes physicians conducting abortions responsible for scrutinizing, controlling and limiting the parents’ choice. Holding physicians liable for providing women with medical service may cause those specialists to deny care to women in order to avoid liability under the law since it is difficult to determine the real reason a woman chooses to undergo an abortion.[v] In these terms, putting a burden on doctors to scrutinize the reason for abortion can pose a threat to a wide range of human rights, for example, the right to health and privacy if women are arbitrarily denied abortion.
Secondly, bearing in mind that corruption in the health sector is one of the top four most corrupt sectors in Armenia,[vi] another possible consequence of putting the burden on doctors for deciding on the matter of sex-selective abortions and penalizing them is likely to be an increased level of corruption in providing medical services, as parents will have to find a way to corrupt the doctors to undergo an abortion.
Thirdly, a pregnant woman often fears having a female child from the very early stages of the pregnancy and has to deal with the possible pressure she is going to face when the sex of the fetus is determined as female, which varies from blackmailing to psychological and physical violence.[vii] As a further matter, women are the ones bearing the “consequences of having a girl child,” and the girls can often be neglected if unwanted, and the mother can be treated “unfavorably” when giving birth to an unwanted child. In these terms, the ban can endanger the proper upbringing of the child, the health of a mother and exacerbate those already existing sad occurrences, contrary to the requirement of the CESCR Committee to prioritize reducing women’s health risks and protecting women from domestic violence.[viii]
And lastly, as traditional methods for abortion is high in Armenia, and women apply the use of very dangerous methods for abortion, in the atmosphere of existing restrictive laws, if women believe that physicians conducting abortions are likely to suspect them of seeking a sex-selective abortion, they may not seek reproductive health services in the first place.[ix] Consequently, the ban will put women’s health and lives at risk as the number of illegal and unsafe abortions will increase, leading to increased morbidity and mortality. As reasonably argued by Ganatra, widespread bans on sex-selective abortions are creating “additional barriers to women seeking access to early and safe abortions”.[x] And as recognized under international human rights law, states must take steps to ensure access to appropriate health-care services for women and “to eliminate such barriers to the provision of abortion services and that lead women to resort to unsafe abortions, including eliminating unacceptable delays in providing medical attention.”[xi]
As sex-selection is the product of patriarchy, the battle against sex-selective abortions should rather include a combination of social programs aimed at root causes of sex-selection – decreasing son preference and establishing gender equality, which the law cannot address. This can be done through combating domestic violence, increasing the value of women in the Armenian society, presenting them as agents that help their families and the society-at-large to flourish, increasing women’s leadership opportunities, and empowering women. International human rights law provides a comprehensive framework for these elements to become a reality; thus when the Government of Armenia meets its requirements under international human rights law, then the matter of sex-selective abortions will be addressed, and appropriate consequences will follow.
[ii] RA Law on Reproductive Health and Reproductive Rights, Article 10(1.1), Article 10(1.2).
[iii] Ibid, Article 10(2) reads “Abortions due to reasons other than on the list of clinical or social indications indicated in clause 8 of this article, including sex-selective abortions within 12-22 weeks of pregnancy, are banned”.
[iv] World Economic Forum, “The Global Gender Gap Report 2016”, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Available from http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/eastern-europe-and-central-asia/ [accessed 15 March 2017].
[v] International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School, The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), “Replacing Myths with Facts: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States”, June 2014, p. 28.
[vi] Policy Forum Armenia, “Corruption in Armenia”, Yerevan, Armenia, 2013, p. 30, Available from: https://www.pf-armenia.org/sites/default/files/documents/files/PFA_Corruption_Report.pdf [accessed 28 May 2017].
[vii] Anna Voskanyan, “Sex-selective abortions as part of gender-based discrimination in Armenian family”, Center for Gender and Leadership Studies, p. 16. Available from: ”http://www.ysu.am/files/Anna%20Voskanyan%20pdf%20eng.pdf [accessed 19 March 2017].
[viii] [viii] CESCR, General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12 of the Covenant), 11 August 2000, E/C.12/2000/4, para. 21.
[ix] The International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, “CERD Shadow Report: Sex-Selective Abortion Bans in the United States and Their Discriminatory Effect on Asian American Women”, June 2014, p. 4, para. 14, Available from: https://ihrclinic.uchicago.edu/sites/ihrclinic.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/Sex-Selective%20Abortion%20Shadow%20Report%20-%20FINAL%206.30.14.pdf [accessed 25 May 2017].
[x] Ina K. Warriner, Iqbal H. Shah, “Preventing Unsafe Abortion and its Consequences: Priorities for Research and Action”, Guttmacher Institute, France, 2006, p. 161, Available from: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/unsafe_abortion/0939253763.pdf, [accessed 25 May 2017].
[xi] OHCHR, Practices in adopting a human rights-based approach to eliminate preventable maternal mortality and human rights, A/HRC/18/27, para. 29.