Abortion-rights activists protest outside of the White House during a rally in Washington, Saturday, July 9, 2022. Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AP

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Richard Ogle of Camden is a writer, researcher and business consultant.

In the ensuing avalanche of commentary on the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, only passing reference has been made to the internationally recognized “unalienable” human rights that provide a solid foundation for protecting women.

Appealing to human rights grounds abortion in a moral framework — shared by practically all nations — of what it means to be a human being. In a secular world there can be no higher court of appeal.

For example, Article 1 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States was a signatory (Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee) claims that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 3 states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Abortion opponents might argue that Article 3 presents an unassailable argument against abortion. In reality, it strongly supports it. The health risks of childbearing far surpass those of undergoing abortion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. maternal deaths in 2020 surpassed 850.

Furthermore, as the three dissenting justices in the Dobbs case point out, the ban on abortion in approximately half the states is forecast by some experts to increase maternal mortality by over a fifth. This would lead to an addition of 170 deaths, or a total of more than 1,000 deaths annually. In contrast, the CDC reports that there were 2 deaths from legal abortions in the U.S. in 2018 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). This shows that the anti-abortion movement’s implicit claim to occupy the moral high ground in virtue of being “pro life” is deeply hypocritical.

Far from being moved by such figures to adopt a more moderate position, however, many in the anti-abortion movement double down, proclaiming that ( as the dissenting justices put it), “[F]rom the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of.” This demotes women to a status even below that of (in Simone de Beauvoir’s resonant phrase) “the second sex.”

Making an exception to save the life or health of the mother scarcely mitigates the situation, since many doctors claim that making the decision to terminate a pregnancy under such circumstances is both difficult and painful. An article in Pro Publica notes that 135 expectant and new mothers a day — or more than 50,000 a year — “endure dangerous and even life-threatening complications that often leave them wounded, weakened, traumatized, financially devastated, unable to bear more children or searching in vain for answers about what went wrong.”

Admittedly, no internationally recognized statement of human rights currently mentions abortion. But the universally acknowledged right to life is associated with a powerful cluster of other rights. These include not just the rights to freedom, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy, but also special care of mothers and children, happiness, privacy, choice of size and timing of family, access to adequate healthcare at the point of use, and travel across state lines. Together, these create a moral space in which there is no room for the forced childbearing abortion opponents insist on.

As the struggle over reproductive healthcare shifts to Congress and the states, supporters of abortion rights must expose the hypocrisy of the so-called pro-life movement. A truly pro-life position would recognize women’s right to an abortion until the point of fetal viability (around 24 weeks).

The banner of human rights has many strands. Woven together, each becomes stronger, jointly forming the fabric of an uplifting and deeply humane standard around which to rally.