The Right to Life Under International Human Rights Law

12.14.20

Document Type


Primary Content

The Center Led a Coalition to Shape Guidance on the interpretation of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by 173 countries, issued a General Comment to states on the interpretation of Article 6 of the Covenant, the right to life, providing guidance on how to implement its obligations under this Article. The Center led a coalition of NGOs that helped shape the content of the Committee’s guidance on how right to life obligations apply to maternal health and to abortion. According to the World Health Organization, 295,000 women died of maternal causes in 2017, and unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal deaths.

In General Comment No. 36, the Human Rights Committee expressed the view that the duty to protect life includes that States should take appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity. This obligation includes ensuring access to essential goods and services, including health care, developing campaigns for raising awareness of gender-based violence and harmful practices, and improving access to medical examinations and treatments designed to reduce maternal and infant mortality. It noted that social and other determinants of health must be addressed in order for women to be able to seek and access the maternal health services they need and recommended that States should develop strategic plans and campaigns for improving access to treatments designed to reduce maternal mortality, as part of advancing the enjoyment of the right to life.

As part of preventing foreseeable threats to the right to life in relation to abortion, the Human Rights Committee affirmed that States have a duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide, with restrictive laws being a main barrier to accessing safe abortion. Accordingly, the Human Rights Committee noted that States must not impose criminal sanctions against women and girls undergoing abortion or against medical service providers assisting them in doing so, and at a minimum, States “must provide access to safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable.” This formulation allows for a broad interpretation of the minimum grounds under which abortion should be made legal and also calls on States to take affirmative steps to provide access to abortion.

In line with WHO findings, the Human Rights Committee also set forth other recommendations to prevent unsafe abortion, including the removal of existing barriers to safe and legal abortion—including the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers—and [that States] should not introduce new barriers. The Committee also noted that States should "protect the lives of women and girls against the mental and physical health risks associated with unsafe abortions. In particular, they should ensure access for women and men, and especially girls and boys, to quality and evidence-based information and education on sexual and reproductive health and to a wide range of affordable contraceptive methods, and prevent the stigmatization of women and girls who seek abortion." They also recommended ensuring "the availability of, and effective access to, quality prenatal and post-abortion health care for women and girls, in all circumstances and on a confidential basis."

The Center’s World Abortion Laws Map illustrates the legal status of abortion worldwide.