Whose Right to Life? Women's Rights and Prenatal Protections under Human Rights and Comparative Law

The right to life is a fundamental human right, central to the enjoyment of all other human rights. International human rights law recognizes this basic right begins at birth, and international and regional human rights bodies, as well as courts worldwide, have clearly established that any prenatal protections must be consistent with women’s human rights. An emerging trend to extend a right to life before birth, and in particular from conception, poses a significant threat to women’s human rights, in theory and in practice. These efforts, often rooted in ideological and religious motivations, are part of a deliberate attempt to deny women the full range of reproductive health services that are essential to safeguarding women’s fundamental rights to life, health, dignity, equality, and autonomy, among others. These attempts to grant a right to life before birth—and therefore recognize prenatal legal personhood—seek to bestow rights on a zygote, embryo, or fetus that would be equal or superior to the rights of women. In many cases, these measures aim to outlaw any procedure that terminates a pregnancy. In other cases, these attempts have sought to justify restrictions on access to in vitro fertilization and contraception. Across the board, these strategies attempt to deny women the ability to make autonomous decisions regarding their fertility with complete disregard for women’s basic human rights.

There are a number of steps that States can and should take to promote a legitimate interest in prenatal life while respecting women’s fundamental rights. This updated toolkit, which includes recent court decisions and interpretive guidance from human rights bodies, analyzes how States can meet their international human rights obligations as they seek to protect the value of prenatal life. The toolkit sets forth international and comparative legal standards for interpreting right to life protections. It also identifies how relevant human rights, public health, and scientific evidence supports legal protections to guarantee women’s rights as a crucial step in protecting the right to life and ensuring the health and well-being of women and their children.

Download the complete toolkit to learn more.