Advancing abortion in the name of the ‘right to life’: Yes, this is happening.

EDW
November 20, 2017

  Roxana Stanciu

Promoting abortion under the ‘right to life’ seems like a contradiction in terms. But it is precisely what the United Nations Human Rights Committee is pursuing. Despite strong international resistance, the Committee has formally excluded unborn children from their official definition of what the ‘right to life’ entails—now putting the issue squarely before the international community.

In what must surely count as one of the strangest efforts on record, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee plans to promote the universal legalization of abortion as part of its efforts to re-interpret the ‘right to life’. The Committee has been working to update and modify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an important international human rights treaty adopted in 1966.

Signed by 175 countries, the ICCPR is part of the International Bill of Human Rights and enumerates the ‘right to life’, as well as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. It formally declares: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.”

For five decades, this understanding has been respected. But the UN Human Rights Committee, which is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the ICCPR, has recently sought to draft a re-interpretation of what the ‘right to life’ means.

 

Is abortion at the heart of the ‘right to life’?

At a meeting in early November, the UN Human Rights Committee considered a draft re-interpretation of the ICCPR, entitled ‘General comment’, which indicates, among other things, that laws protecting unborn babies can amount to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment” for women. It also specifies that countries “whose laws generally prohibit voluntary terminations of pregnancy must, nonetheless, maintain legal exceptions.”

During the meeting, a French member of the Committee, Olivier de Frouville, stated that the decriminalization of abortion “is at the heart of the issues of the ‘right to life’!” Several other Committee members also took the opportunity to state their firm support for the legalization of abortion—on behalf of human rights and the lives of women.

Although more than 100 non-governmental organisations urged the Committee to abandon the proposed draft, they were ignored. In the end, the Committee embraced the ‘General comment’, which argues that “[s]tate parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion” – without any conditions or limitations on time. This was a complete reversal of the ICCPR’s understanding of the role and importance of the ‘right to life’.

 

A conflict with international & European law

The push for a ‘right to abortion’ by the UN Human Rights Committee, under the guise of re-interpreting the ‘right to life’, is not just outlandish. It is also in strong contradiction to international law, which currently does not create any obligation on the part of countries or states to legalize abortion.

There is no ‘right to abortion’ enshrined in any international treaty. In fact, the UN Charter actually seeks to promote “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction.” Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in turn, proclaims “everyone has the right to life”. Separately, the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that “every child has the inherent right to life” and that the “child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”.  

A memorandum published by the European Centre for Law and Justice notes that “[a]ccording to the [European Court of Human Rights] case-law, no right to abortion derives from the right to life guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” It then concludes by stating: “Affirming the obligation for states to legalize abortion is thus inconsistent with European standards.”

 

Why is this so important?

The ICCPR is one of the oldest and most widely adopted UN human rights treaties. The state parties that have so far adopted the ICCPR are bound by international law to observe its terms.

The UN Human Rights Committee provides support for the work of the ICCPR in the form of general comments. Most observers agree that these are to be considered authoritative, quasi-juridical statements. They also play an increasingly important role in the development of “soft” laws (i.e., rules that are not strictly binding in nature but which also do not completely lack legal significance).

The Human Rights Committee offers non-binding recommendations to state parties on the fulfilment of their obligations under the treaty. However, state parties could be easily be pressured into complying with the Committee’s pronouncements. State parties are, in fact, accountable to the Committee based on how they comply with the Committee’s interpretations.  This means that the Human Rights Committee, by imposing its ‘General comment’, could conceivably force all 175 signatories of the ICCPR to eventually legalize abortion on demand.

The ‘General comment’ will be discussed again at the next session of the UN Human Rights Committee to be held in March or April 2018. In the meantime, we can only wonder how it is possible to have such a complete inversion of the meaning of the ‘right to life’? It is impossible to promote abortion in an official document while, at the same time, advancing the ‘right to life’. Common sense should prompt us to ask serious questions about such purposeful distortions of terms—and about the morality of the views behind such attempts.