U.S. policy traps women in poverty, and the world is watching

by Risa Kaufman | Center for Reproductive Rights
Friday, 22 June 2018 16:03 GMT

Pro-abortion rights protesters and anti-abortion protesters jostle with their signs as they demonstrate in the hopes of a ruling in their favor on decisions at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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The United States’ withdrawal from the Human Rights Council does not absolve its human rights obligations

The fact that 40 million people live in poverty in one of the richest nations in the world is a tragedy and a disgrace. A United Nations report delivered on Friday to the UN Human Rights Council makes clear that it also undermines fundamental human rights, with particularly harsh impacts on women.

In short, basic healthcare is the foundation for reproductive health, and poverty represents a direct barrier to healthcare for those in the U.S. who cannot afford to pay for it. The United States’ withdrawal from the Human Rights Council does not absolve its human rights obligations.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Poverty, Professor Philip Alston, is an independent expert appointed by the UN to monitor human rights and poverty around the world. He conducted an official visit to the United States in December 2017, to examine the extent to which the U.S. is living up to its international obligations. The final report from his visit expresses alarm over the U.S.’ vast poverty and inequality and the exacerbating impact of race discrimination.

In doing so, the report lays out, in stark terms, the ongoing political backlash against reproductive healthcare, social protection programs, and historically marginalized communities within the United States, revealing the many ways in which U.S. policy criminalizes and stigmatizes the poor, and creates barriers to comprehensive healthcare, including essential reproductive health services.

For example, the report acknowledges the ways in which legal and practical limitations on abortion access, such as mandatory waiting periods and long driving distances to clinics, trap women in poverty. For women who cannot afford to miss work, or to pay for a hotel near a clinic that may be hundreds of miles from her home, or secure childcare, the constitutionally protected right to legal abortion becomes a right on paper only. And when women are denied access to abortion, they are more likely to wind up living in poverty, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

It recognizes, as well, that many women seeking access to prenatal care through Medicaid suffer violations of their privacy. And many women living in poverty are denied the ability to parent with dignity. Poor women of color in particular face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination rooted in institutionalized inequality. As the report notes, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among wealthy countries, and Black women are three to four times more likely to die from child birth than white women.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that the United States recognize healthcare as a human right. The recommendation is a wake-up call for federal officials to assess and renew efforts to address the maternal mortality crisis, eliminate maternal health disparities, and ensure broader access to the full range of reproductive healthcare, including abortion.

What would this look like in practice? One immediate step the Administration should take is to reverse course on its efforts to block access to essential healthcare services under the federal

Title X Family Planning Program. And reverse course in its effort to curtail access to birth control coverage through the creation of overly broad religious and moral objection exemptions.

To stem the rise in maternal mortality, the government should expand access to quality and respectful maternal healthcare and preventative health services, encourage states and localities to engage communities in standardized data collection related to maternal mortality and morbidity, and promote health equity by addressing the social determinants of health.

The federal government must also seriously consider proposed legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prohibit states from enacting unconstitutional restrictions that restrict abortion access. The Each Woman Act would restore coverage for abortion services to women enrolled in insurance plans and programs offered or managed by the federal government, including Medicaid.

The Special Rapporteur’s report makes clear the vast inequality and hardship that millions of people living in poverty face daily in the United States. It also makes clear that the government has an obligation to address these hardships and disparities. Healthcare, including access to reproductive healthcare, is a human right. Realization of the right, through law and policy, will enable all to live in dignity and equality, and to determine their futures.

Risa Kaufman is the Director of U.S. Human Rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights.