What does it mean when sexuality and reproduction are criminalized?

The criminalization of sexuality and reproduction around the world is a major barrier to human rights, and denies millions of us our human dignity.

This is why Amnesty International has launched Body Politics: Criminalization of Sexuality and Reproduction, a new series of tools to empower activists worldwide to challenge criminalization and stand up for their rights.

What is criminalization of sexuality and reproduction?

The criminalization of sexuality and reproduction is when consensual sexual and reproductive actions and decisions, or the expression of sexual and gender identities, is restricted or punished.

Sometimes this happens through direct regulation, such as criminal bans on abortion. At other times, a range of laws and policies relating to public order or “morality” are used to indirectly police and punish sexual and reproductive choices or gender expression.

These laws can easily be abused. For example, criminalizing “adultery” violates human rights and can also put women who have been raped at risk of prosecution for sexual activity outside marriage.

How and where does this play out?

In some Latin American countries and many US states there are increasing restrictions on abortion access and laws that punish women for their actions during pregnancy.

In Europe and North America, the actions of people living with HIV have attracted increasing attention from legislators and prosecutors.

In many African states, the use of laws to criminalize same-sex sexual conduct has intensified.

In parts of Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, criminal prohibition of sexual activity outside marriage, and restrictions on access to basic sexual health information or services continue to undermine the sexual and reproductive rights of whole groups.

Who is impacted?

Such punitive laws and policies often disproportionately affect people who do not or cannot conform to dominant social norms because of their identities or because of decisions they make in relation to their economic circumstances, their sex, race, gender expression, sexual orientation, or their immigration, health or disability status.

Most people who face sanctions or imprisonment for sexual and reproductive “crimes” are, in reality, being punished for actions and decisions related to poverty, social exclusion, identity or their status in society. For example, laws policing pregnant women’s behaviour result in racial and gender discrimination and particularly impact low-income women and those unable to access healthcare services. Laws punishing sex work target those who have few other options, and increase stigma and discrimination.

What is Amnesty International doing about these issues?

Through the Body Politics series, Amnesty International is showing that it’s time to stand up against unjust criminalization of people’s bodies, sexualities, reproduction and gender expression.

The Body Politics Primer helps to build the movement’s knowledge and capacity to challenge unjust criminalization, and the Body Politics Toolkit promotes strategic campaigning on these issues. It is designed to empower activists and individuals to raise awareness and stand up for their rights.

Amnesty International will be releasing the third part of the series, the Body Politics Training Manual, later in 2018.

See Amnesty International's Body Politics Primer and Body Politics Toolkit