Access to Information on Safe Abortion: A Harm Reduction and Human Rights Approach

Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Vol. 34, pp. 413-462, 2011

50 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2011

See all articles by Joanna N. Erdman

Joanna N. Erdman

Dalhousie University - Schulich School of Law

Date Written: 2011


With convergence-divergence as an organizing theme, this Article explores harm reduction and human rights as conceptual approaches to and discourses about unsafe abortion. The vehicle for this exploration is access to safer-use information on medication abortion, namely women’s self-administration of the drug misoprostol. More specifically, this Article focuses on the Sanitary Initiative Against Unsafe Abortion (“the Uruguay Model”) as an actualized model or prototype of access to information through physician-patient consultation in restrictive legal environments.

On convergence, this Article seeks to test the claim that international human rights law imposes government obligations to provide, and to refrain from interfering with the communication of, information necessary to reduce the harms of unsafe abortion. Access to information is protected in international law through a constellation of human rights. These rights are articulated in broad terms, but given content and meaning through interpretation by courts, committees, Special Rapporteurs, and commissions. By reference to this jurisprudence, normative validation for harm reduction in unsafe abortion, and specifically access to safer-use information, is constructed from the human rights to life, health, and non-discrimination, among others.

On divergence, this Article seeks to make explicit the different moral warrants underlying harm reduction and human rights. Human rights are set against the normative neutrality of harm reduction, which is characterized by a pragmatic approach to health outcomes. The human rights shortcomings of access to safer-use information through physician-patient consultation, the Uruguay Model, are contrasted against a model driven by a feminist ideology, namely the Safe Abortion Hotline. The limitations of the pragmatic-neutrality of harm reduction in criminal law reform are set against a human rights approach, which envisions legal reform in service of broad social change.

Keywords: safe abortion, human rights, harm reduction, access to information, legal reform

JEL Classification: I12, I18, K14, K10, K19

Suggested Citation

Erdman, Joanna N., Access to Information on Safe Abortion: A Harm Reduction and Human Rights Approach (2011). Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Vol. 34, pp. 413-462, 2011 , Available at SSRN:

Joanna N. Erdman (Contact Author)

Dalhousie University - Schulich School of Law ( email )

6061 University Avenue
6061 University Ave
Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4H9

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