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Anti-abortion disinformation is a ‘systematic violation of rights’

Legal experts in openDemocracy discussion call for international law to be used to protect women from Christian Right

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Aaron White
4 June 2021, 11.48am

openDemocracy’s investigations into global networks of crisis pregnancy centres and ‘abortion pill reversal’ treatments backed by US Christian Right groups reveal how women across the world are repeatedly given misleading information about their health and rights.

Legal experts participating in an openDemocracy panel discussion yesterday said that anti-abortion misinformation was a “systematic violation of rights” and denounced it as “outrageous”.

“Information availability is one of the underlying determinants of the right to health,” said Melissa Upreti, the vice-chair of the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls. “Without the right information that is scientifically based and backed by evidence, the quality of care is compromised.”

Laima Vaige, a Lithuanian human rights lawyer and feminist researcher based in Sweden, said: “Misinformation is a long-standing issue in Lithuania. But I still cannot help but be surprised by the audacity of such actions, especially by medical doctors who are under oath. That’s really outrageous.”

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A global battle

The panellists repeatedly emphasised the need to battle misinformation transnationally.

“We may know what’s happening in our own country, but many people – even progressives – don’t realise the same thing is happening in different countries,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. “This is a pattern happening within Europe, Africa, Latin America and beyond, which really opens new ways of looking at this.”

Upreti said that disinformation – which is false information that is spread deliberately to mislead – can be tackled via international treaties, especially relating to women’s health and rights: “They can be used to show that these are not just random acts, but there’s actually a systematic violation of rights.”

Upreti also emphasised that international law can be used as a tool to investigate the private businesses and corporations involved: “What are the tools that are being used to spread misinformation? Who is benefiting from this? Is there advertising that others are benefiting from?”

Vaige noted the financial disparities between feminist and anti-abortion organisations in countries such as Lithuania: “These crisis pregnancy centres have celebrities behind them. They are broadcast on national TV and advertised on every bus stop.”

She highlighted the importance of openDemocracy’s investigations in revealing the “resources and international corporations” behind the disinformation anti-abortion campaigns.

We as citizens need to demand our entitlement to health information

“These types of investigations and what’s been happening, for example, in Poland with the near complete abortion ban, is waking up a new generation of political classes in Europe,” said Datta.

He went on to cite how the Croatian parliament called for a parliamentary inquiry into crisis pregnancy centres following openDemocracy’s investigation. “There’s a will from certain political parties to reaffirm rights that we had long thought were established but are now coming up for contestation,” he added.

“The level of misinformation is an indicator of the failure of the government to ensure these basic human rights,” said Upreti. “Information is an entitlement in relation to health. States need to start acting like it is, and we as citizens need to start demanding it. And that can make a difference.”

Tatev Hovhannisyan, Europe and Eurasia editor for openDemocracy’s Tracking the Backlash project, said: “To fulfill the democratic function of journalism, journalists should pay attention to and expose threats to women’s health. But unfortunately, women’s rights are not on journalists' investigative agendas enough.”

“Observation, exposure and solidarity is extremely important,” said Vaige. “There is a whole strategy to attack every journalist who tries to deviate from the usual discourse and to speak for the rights of women.

“We can cooperate across state borders just as well as the anti-abortion and anti-women rights organisations can. We also need cooperation and solidarity.”

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