Sexuality Policy Watch

International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion’s report on the Human Rights Comittee discussion on “The Right to Life”

Human Rights Committee
Open Hearing on Article 6 
 The Right to Life
to develop a General Comment
Geneva, 14 July 2015


Joint Statement on behalf of human rights organizations from across the globe presented by Center for Reproductive Rights

We welcome the Committee’s decision to draft this general comment and believe that it presents a critical opportunity for the Committee to elaborate on states’ obligations to realize all people’s, particularly women’s, right to life on the basis of equality and non-discrimination, taking into account the risks that women and girls face to their lives as a result of their reproductive capacities and their gender. We wish to highlight three issues in this regard. First, across jurisdictions and in all regions of the world, states parties to the Covenant have continuously failed to give effect to their obligations under Article 6 to guarantee all individuals access to the full range of quality reproductive health services, which are essential for safeguarding their lives and health… Second, while it is firmly established in international law and standards that the rights enshrined in Article 6 begin at birth and do not apply prenatally, at times states parties to the Covenant have claimed that domestic laws and policies which violate gender equality and human rights are permissible because they seek to protect the right to life prior to birth. Such laws and policies have profoundly detrimental implications for the enjoyment of Covenant rights, including the right to life… Third, and finally, where states parties put in place measures to protect or promote fetal interests, the Covenant requires that such measures must not infringe on individuals’ human rights and must be consistent with state obligations under the Covenant.

Signed by over 50 abortion rights and human rights organizations and experts

Joint Statement – HRC Day of Discussion on the Right to Life


International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe AbortionDiscussion of “the right to life” deserves ongoing, serious consideration. It does not deserve to be hijacked by calls to support the right to life of embryos in disregard of the consequences for the lives of living children, let alone the lives of women, let alone mothers. We urge you not to attempt to find a so-called “balanced” stance, as that is not possible. Our submission explains why.We refer to a 2005 paper by human rights experts Rhonda Copelon et al which describes all the main arguments: Human rights begin at birth: international law and the claim of fetal rights.

Reproductive Health Matters 2005;13(26)120-29

While the human rights literature since then contains many new comments and examples, the crux issue remains the same: either you support women’s autonomy over their own bodies and

lives – or you sacrifice them. If the right to life began before birth, every woman would be required to carry every pregnancy to term, which would be a form of slavery, making every woman into a vessel.

Our submission presents evidence from emergency obstetric cases where the attempt to show equal regard for the life of the woman and the fetus, a Catholic health policy, resulted in the woman’s health and life being put at grave risk or sacrificed altogether. These examples include:

1. A woman in Ireland who had an inevitable miscarriage but was refused an abortion until there was no longer a fetal heartbeat. By then, she had developed severe uterine sepsis, which killed her.

2. Cases in Costa

Rica, El Salvador, Peru, Ireland and Poland in which pregnant women with terminal illnesses or at risk of serious morbidity were denied a termination, or treatment was delayed or denied to protect the fetus.

3. A victim of rape in her country of origin who sought asylum in Ireland and discovered she was pregnant from the rape, who was refused an abortion, became suicidal and was forced to stay in hospital and accept a caesarean section to save the baby.

4. A Paraguayan girl who was sexually abused by her stepfather and at the age of ten years became pregnant and was denied an abortion by the Ministers of Health and Justice of Paraguay, was confined in a hospital and has probably been forced to have a caesarean section too.

The International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion would welcome an unequivocal statement from the Committee that a woman’s right to life is paramount and must always be put first, including when she is pregnant.

International Campaign for Womens Right to Safe Abortion Submission to the HRC Open Hearing on Article 6 Right to Life


Mindy Jane Roseman, J.D., Ph.D.,Lecturer on Law, Academic Director, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School (in personal capacity)

As the issue of abortion has repeatedly come before this Committee, this brief submission is written to suggest how Article 6.1 might be better clarified in order to give guidance to states parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Covenant). It focuses particularly on the meaning of “every human being,” the connection between the right to life and health, and a few implications for the meaning of “protected by law”…


*   This General Comment 36 presents an opportunity to clarify that laws prohibiting abortion or a pregnant woman’s access to any other medical treatment through criminal or other sanctions, violate Article 6.1.

*   This General Comment 36 could further articulate that states parties’ laws and policies must, at the very least, permit abortion in cases where there are risks:

○   to the woman’s life, physical or mental health,

○   of fetal impairment

○   or when the pregnancy is due to a crime (e.g. rape, incest).

*   The committee could also take this occasion to clarify that indications for abortion on the basis of fetal impairment do not violate Articles 2.1, 6.1 or 26.

*   This General Comment can stress to states parties that they must adopt measures to provide for an effective and accessible means of protecting women’s rights, including a regulatory framework for their adjudication and enforcement, specifically tailored to the time constraints of pregnancy. Failure to do so would violate the content of Article 6.1 and Article 2.3 (the right to an effective remedy).

Mindy Roseman Submission HRC GC36


International Humanist and Ethical Union

Contrary to what has been argued by a number of self-described “pro-life” groups, and the continued attempts by many States to claim that Article 6 determines a prenatal right to life (so as to justify highly restrictive abortion laws), we would like to reaffirm that, echoing the language of Article 1 of the UDHR, international human rights instruments protecting the right to life do not extend this protection to foetuses or embryos. Article 6 applies to persons after birth only.

This was the position of the Human Rights Committee, when it rejected amendments proposing to apply the right to life before birth during the drafting of the ICCPR itself, and it is also the position of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has noted that the right to life itself includes “the right to control one’s health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedom.”

There are a number of other human rights – for example, the right to health, privacy, or security of person – that support a woman’s right to decide independently in matters related to abortion.

A too-common phenomenon existing in diametric opposition to the realisation of Article 6 is maternal mortality. In 2013, the adult lifetime risk of maternal mortality for women in sub-Saharan Africa was 1 in 38. In its General Comment No. 28 on Article 3, the Committee emphasized State responsibility to reduce maternal mortality from clandestine abortions. Many States party to the Convention have laws that work in direct contradiction of this however; for example, laws resulting in the withholding of critical medical treatment for those having undergone illegal abortions.

The withholding of medical treatment can also come as a direct result of practitioners refusing a reproductive health service on the basis of religious belief or conscience. The human rights framework determines that States must organize their health systems to ensure that women are not prevented from accessing health services by professionals­­ exercising their conscientious objection, and we would be very grateful if the Committee could reaffirm this as well as outline the limits, in the context of Article 6, to the manifestation of one’s religion or belief…

Furthermore, we reject framing the issue of abortion in the context of “exceptions to the right to life”, as suggested in the draft comment [CCPR/C/GC/R.36]. On the contrary, the right for a woman to choose works in conjunction with the right to life: abortion does not affect the right to life since that right begins at birth. We believe it is important that issues pertaining to human choice and self-determination, such as abortion – or indeed suicide – are clearly understood, and represented in the General Comment, as not representing anything counter to the right to life or exceptions of it.

International Humanist and Ethical Union Statement


Catholics for Choice

Catholics for Choice urges the Human Rights Committee to clarify in its General Comment No.36 that the scope and nature of the duty to respect and ensure the right tolife guarantees the right to a dignified life and shall not place rights of the unborn above the rights of women… We cannot support policies that would interfere with a woman acting, in good conscience, upon her beliefs about whether prenatal life is a person or whether continuing or terminating a pregnancy is the right decision for her…

There is not one single, nor one official Catholic opinion on when life begins. Throughout the Catholic tradition, scholars, saints and ordinary Catholics have had differing beliefs about when a developing life becomes a person. In the 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person…

There is no doubt, however, that our Catholic faith teaches that a woman is a person with rights, responsibilities and a conscience that must guide her to make the best decision for herself in light of her circumstances and beliefs…

The Catholic church teaches that one set of religious beliefs should not be codified into law in a pluralistic society, lest people of other faiths and of none are disrepsected and discriminated against… Catholic teaching also believes that we must respect every person’s obligation anf right to follow his or her conscience when making important moral decision… 

Catholics for Choice General Comment No 36 Article 6 Right to life


Other groups who made a submission regarding abortion rights and sexual and reproductive rights included:

-Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW)

-Reproductive Health Matters


-Women Enabled International


Shared by email during correspondence on submissions:

Upholding pregnant women’s right to life

Rebecca J. Cook, Bernard M. Dickens

International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 117 (2012) 90-94. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2012.01.001.


Recent decisions of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the High Court of Delhi have shown how the pregnancy-related deaths of individual women have been bases on which these authoritative tribunals have held Brazil, Paraguay, and India respectively accountable for avoidable maternal mortality not only in these cases, but also among their populations more generally. The right to life is the most fundamental of women’s human rights, recognized in international human rights treaties and national laws. Failure of governments to apply their resources adequately to address, respect, and protect this right violates the law of human rights. These cases show, however, that governmentsmay fail to allocate adequate resources to women’s survival of pregnancy. Tribunals can build on the failures in individual cases to set standards of performance to which governments will legally be held to achieve safe motherhood. 

International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 117 (2012) 90-94

Further information from Rebecca Cook:

Since Rhonda Copelon’s insightful article, there have been at least 7 constitutional court decisions that have come out in favor or women’s rights to abortion using a methodology of balancing the rights to life of the women with the interests of the state in protecting prenatal life:

Colombia 2006, Slovakia 2007, Nepal 2009, Portugal 2010, Mexico 2011, Argentina 2012, Brazil 2012

Some of these decisions are more protective of women’s rights than others, but they all stand for the proposition that the right to life cannot be applied to negate the rights of women in the abortion context.

These decisions, some only in their original language, are all available at:

Some of the decisions (Argentina, Slovakia, Nepal, and Portugal) are analyzed in Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

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