Landmark Cases

For nearly 30 years, the Center for Reproductive Rights has secured court rulings that have fundamentally transformed the landscape of reproductive health and rights for people around the world.

Since its founding in 1992, the Center has shaped legal precedent on reproductive rights through victories in regional, federal and local courts around the world, as well at the United Nations, and has been involved in every major U.S. Supreme Court abortion case.

Below are some of the Center’s landmark victories. (Cases appear in reverse chronological order.)

Paola Guzmán Albarracín v. Ecuador (2020)

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights establishes legally binding standards to protect girls from sexual violence and harassment in schools throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In a ruling with wide-reaching impact, the Court holds Ecuador responsible for violating the right to life, personal integrity, private life and dignity, education, and the right to live free from gender violence and discrimination for failing to protect an adolescent public-school student from the sexual violence she suffered in the school she attended. For the first time, the Court clarifies that the right to education must include sexual and reproductive education which must be comprehensive, non-discriminatory, evidence-based, scientifically rigorous, and age-appropriate. More broadly, the Court establishes that the rights to personal integrity and privacy entail certain freedoms, including the right to sexual freedom and freedom to control one’s own body, and that these freedoms extend to adolescents.

Case background: Paola Guzmán Albarracín v. Ecuador: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Ecuador Inter-American Court of Human Rights Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

June Medical Services v. Russo (2020)

The U.S. Supreme Court affirms the strong legal standard used by courts for decades to determine the constitutionality of abortion laws. In its decision, the Court strikes down as unconstitutional a Louisiana abortion restriction that would have led to the closing of two of the state’s three remaining clinics that provide abortion care. The law was identical to a Texas law the Court ruled unconstitutional in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt—a case won by the Center in 2016. The plurality opinion affirms the Court’s legal standard from Whole Woman’s Health and reiterates that courts must “weigh the law’s asserted benefits against the burdens.”

Case background: June Medical Services v. Russo: U.S. Supreme Court

United States U.S. Supreme Court Abortion 

Hodes & Nauser MDs, P.A., et. al. v. Schmidt & Howe (2019)

The Kansas Supreme Court establishes, for the first time, that the right to abortion is a fundamental right protected by the Kansas Constitution, independently of the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. The decision affirms a preliminary injunction blocking a law that would have banned the abortion method that is the standard of care for ending a pregnancy after approximately 15 weeks. The Kansas Supreme Court also explains that laws limiting abortion access must meet the highest standard of judicial review to satisfy the requirements of the state Constitution.

Case background: Hodes & Nauser MDs, P.A., et. al. v. Schmidt & Howe: Kansas Supreme Court

United StatesKansas Supreme CourtAbortion

FIDA Kenya & 3 others v. Attorney General & 2 others (2019)

In this first-ever case brought in Africa addressing abortion as a constitutional right, Kenya’s High Court reaffirms protections for legal abortion when the life or health of a pregnant woman is threatened. The protections for life or health of the woman include her physical, mental and social wellbeing. The Court emphasizes that this also includes victims of sexual violence. In representing FIDA Kenya, two community advocates, and a minor who died after suffering complications from an unsafe abortion, the Center challenged the government of Kenya’s withdrawal of standards and guidelines pertaining to unsafe abortions. Because of this case, health care providers can be trained in abortion care and are able to offer services without fear of prosecution. The case marks a critically important step toward improving maternal health outcomes for Kenyan women.

Case background: FIDA Kenya & 3 others v Attorney General & 2 others: High Court of Kenya

KenyaHigh Court of Kenya Abortion Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Jackson Namunya Tali v. The Republic of Kenya (2019)

The Court of Appeal of Kenya acquits a registered nurse who had been sentenced to death in September 2014, after a young woman with pregnancy complications died in his care. While the prosecution alleged that Mr. Tali had been trying to assist the woman to procure an illegal abortion, and that this alleged botched abortion had led to her death, the Court finds that the investigating officer and the trial court referred to an abortion theory that is unreasonable and unproven in Court to warrant Mr. Tali’s conviction and death sentence. This case addressed how the continued uncertainty among public health care providers and law enforcement officers on abortion issues and the pervasive environment of abortion stigma undermine the constitutional rights of women and girls. This case also helps reduce the fear of health care workers to provide medical services to women seeking reproductive health services. 

Case background: Jackson Namunya Tali v. The Republic of Kenya

KenyaCourt of Appeal of Kenya Abortion

Josephine Oundo Ongwen v. Attorney General & 4 others (2018)

The Court recognizes that the neglect and physical and verbal abuse of women seeking maternity health care services constitute a violation of rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of Kenya as well as international human rights instruments. The Court declares that the physical and verbal abuse experienced by Josephine during her delivery amounted to a violation of her right to dignity and her right to not be subjected to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. The Court also finds that the National and Bungoma County Governments failed to implement and monitor the standards of free maternal health care and services, thus resulting in the mistreatment of Josephine. The Court’s decision emphasizes the need to develop and implement policy guidelines so that quality and accessible health care services are available to all Kenyans, especially in the context of maternal health care.

Case background: Josephine Oundo Ongwen v Attorney General & 4 others: Bungoma High Court

KenyaBungoma High Court Maternal Health

Mellet v. Ireland (2016); Whelan v. Ireland (2017)

In two landmark rulings, the United Nations Human Rights Committee determines that Ireland’s strict ban on abortion subjected women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. For the first time in response to an individual complaint, the Committee recognizes that criminalizing and prohibiting abortion violates human rights, including the rights to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to privacy and to equality and non-discrimination. The Committee instructed Ireland to prevent future violations by legalizing abortion and ensuring access to abortion care in Ireland.

Learn more: Mellet v. Ireland (2016), Whelan v. Ireland (2017) (United Nations Human Rights Committee)

IrelandUnited Nations Human Rights Committee Abortion 

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016)

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s most significant abortion-related ruling in more than two decades, the Court affirms the “undue burden” legal standard that the benefits of a law must outweigh the burdens it imposes in order to be upheld as constitutional. The decision also reaffirms “that real-world impacts of abortion restrictions—particularly on marginalized communities—matter in the undue burden analysis.” In striking down two Texas abortion restrictions that would have forced almost all of the state’s abortion providers to close their doors, the Court concludes that the two restrictions at issue do not provide any medical benefits while imposing a burden on the right to abortion.

Case background: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: U.S. Supreme Court

United States U.S. Supreme Court Abortion 

Millicent Awuor (Maimuna) & Margaret Anyoso Oliele v. Attorney General & others (2015)

The High Court of Kenya underscores the government’s obligations to protect the rights of women seeking maternal health services in public health care facilities. The High Court recognizes that the detention and abuse of women who are unable to pay for maternity services at Kenyan public hospitals are arbitrary, unlawful, and in violation of Kenyan Constitutional and international human rights standards. The decision declares that the Kenyan government must take all necessary steps to protect patients from detention in health care facilities. Furthermore, the government is required to develop clear guidelines and procedures for implementing the fee waiver system in all public hospitals, as lack of funding for maternal health services is a driving cause of the practice of detaining patients.

Case background: Millicent Awuor (Maimuna) & Margaret Anyoso Oliele v Attorney General & others: High Court of Kenya

KenyaHigh Court of Kenya Maternal Health

M.M. v. Peru (2014)

In a Friendly Settlement Agreement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Peru admits its international responsibility for violating the human rights of a woman who was drugged and raped by a public health service doctor when she was seeking medical services. The Peruvian government compensates the 19-year-old victim and takes steps with the aim of improving legal and administrative policies on sexual violence.

Case background: M.M. v. Peru: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

PeruInter-American Commission on Human Rights

P. and S. v. Poland (2013)

The European Court of Human Rights sets standards for the rights of adolescents to reproductive health services and, for the first time, addresses the special vulnerability of adolescents and confirms young people’s autonomy when it comes to their reproductive health. The court reaffirms that once a state has adopted statutory regulations that allow abortion in some situations, it must also make abortion accessible in practice.

Read more: P. and S. v. Poland: European Court of Human Rights

PolandEuropean Court of Human Rights Abortion Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

L.C. v. Peru (2011)

The United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) rules that Peru’s failure to guarantee access to essential reproductive health services, including legal abortion, violates international treaty obligations.  In a case involving a young girl who was raped and then denied emergency spinal surgery because she was pregnant—despite the fact that abortion is legal in Peru when health and life are at risk — CEDAW rules that Peru violated the obligation to eliminate discrimination against women in  health care and to eliminate prejudices and gender stereotypes concerning the protection of the fetus over the health of the mother. CEDAW demands that Peru establish a mechanism for effective access to therapeutic abortion under conditions that protect women’s physical and mental health, change its laws to allow exceptions for abortion in the case of rape, and implement training programs in relation to adolescent women seeking reproductive health services and respond to specific health needs related to sexual violence.

Case background: L.C. v. Peru: CEDAW Committee

PeruCEDAW Committee Abortion Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

R.R. v. Poland (2011)

The European Court of Human Rights rules that Poland’s denial of legal reproductive care violates human rights. It found that Poland’s failure to ensure timely access to medical information and prenatal testing undermined informed decision making in pregnancy and caused acute anguish, amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment. The Court held that Poland must put in place an effective legal and procedural framework that guarantees that relevant, full and reliable information is available to women enabling them to make informed decisions about their pregnancy. The Court also held that Poland must ensure that women’s access to legal reproductive health services is not jeopardized by medical professionals’ refusals of care with reference to the “conscience clause” under Polish law.

Case background: R.R. v. Poland: European Court of Human Rights

PolandEuropean Court of Human Rights Abortion

Alyne da Silva Pimentel v. Brazil (2011)

In the first-ever maternal mortality case decided by an international human rights body, the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) rules that States are obligated to address and reduce maternal mortality. The ruling condemns Brazil for failing to provide timely, nondiscriminatory, and appropriate maternal health services to Alyne Da Silva. And it orders the country to adopt measures to reduce maternal mortality and redress Alyne’s family. The committee recognizes that states have a human rights obligation to reduce maternal mortality, to ensure women’s rights to safe motherhood, and to provide affordable access to adequate emergency obstetric care, meeting the specific and distinctive health needs of women, particularly women from low socioeconomic backgrounds and historically marginalized groups.

Case background: Alyne da Silva Pimentel v. Brazil: CEDAW Committee

BrazilUnited Nations CEDAW Committee Maternal Health

Lakshmi v. Nepal (2009)

Nepal’s Supreme Court concludes that the government must guarantee access to safe and affordable abortion services. The Court orders Nepal to adopt a comprehensive abortion law, establishing a national fund for abortion procedure costs, ensuring stronger safeguards for women’s privacy, promoting access to safe services for all women, and widely disseminating information about safe abortion services to health service providers and the public.

Case background: Lakshmi v. Nepal: Nepal Supreme Court

NepalNepal Supreme Court Abortion

Paulina Ramirez v. Mexico (2006)

In a Federal Agreement Settlement, the Mexican government agrees to establish guidelines for rape victims’ access to abortion care. The agreement leads to a federal-wide decree calling for the development and implementation of guidelines and procedures to guarantee the right of rape victims to access timely abortion care, paving the way for legislative change to partially decriminalize abortion in Mexico City. The agreement also leads to legal reform in the Mexican state of Baja California that women who are victims of the crime of rape receive information about the legal termination of pregnancy with the aim of guaranteeing their free and informed choice. In this case, Mexico admits responsibility for violating the rights of a 14-year-old rape victim after public health officials used a series of obstacles to convince her to withdraw her request for an abortion as a survivor of sexual assault.

Case background: Paulina Ramirez v. Mexico: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

MexicoInter-American Commission on Human Rights Abortion Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

K.L. v. Peru (2005)

The U.N. Human Rights Committee establishes that women and girls have a human right to access safe and legal abortion. The committee holds that denying access to legal abortion violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ protection for the right to be free from cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as the right to privacy and the special protection of the rights of a minor.

Case background: K.L. v. Peru: U.N. Human Rights Committee

PeruUnited Nations Human Rights Committee Abortion Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

María Mamérita Mestanza Chávez v. Peru (2003)

In the first case on reproductive rights admitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Peru is held responsible for its forced sterilization policies. In a settlement agreement, Peru admits responsibility for the forced sterilization of María Mamérita Mestanza and for her death following inadequate care. It agrees to implement recommendations made by Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman concerning forced sterilization of women, particularly in marginalized and indigenous communities. Peru agrees to compensate Mestanza’s family members and to change its laws and policies on reproductive health and family planning, eliminating discrimination and respecting women’s autonomy.

Case background: María Mamérita Mestanza Chávez v. Peru: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

PeruInter-American Commission on Human Rights Forced Sterilization

North Florida Women’s Health and Counseling Services, Inc. v. Florida (2003)

The Florida Supreme Court reaffirms that the right to privacy guaranteed by the Florida Constitution includes the right to abortion, establishing stronger protections for the right to abortion in Florida than those provided by the U.S. Constitution. The decision strikes down a forced parental involvement and mandatory delay law and affirms a then-decade-old precedent that abortion restrictions must pass the strictest standard of judicial review to be upheld under the Florida Constitution.

Learn more: North Florida Women’s Health and Counseling Services, Inc. v. Florida: Florida Supreme Court

United StatesFlorida Supreme CourtAbortion 

Ferguson v. City of Charleston (2001)

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that a South Carolina public hospital policy of surreptitiously drug-testing pregnant women and turning over positive test results to law enforcement violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court concludes that public officials’ interest in preventing prenatal cocaine exposure does not constitute a “special need” that justifies conducting unconsented searches without a warrant for the purposes of collecting evidence for law enforcement. 

Case background: Ferguson v. City of Charleston: U.S. Supreme Court

United StatesU.S. Supreme CourtMaternal Health

Stenberg v. Carhart (2000)

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Nebraska’s method ban on abortion is unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer finds that the Nebraska ban is invalid under Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, as a ban on the most commonly used method of performing a second-trimester abortion imposes an undue burden.

Case background: Stenberg v. Carhart: U.S. Supreme Court

United StatesU.S. Supreme CourtAbortion

New Mexico Right to Choose/NARAL v. Johnson (1998)

The New Mexico Supreme Court rules that a policy that prevented patients from using Medicaid coverage for medically necessary abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or a life-threatening condition, violates the Equal Rights Amendment to the New Mexico Constitution. The court concludes that the policy created an unconstitutional disparity, because medically necessary procedures for men were covered by Medicaid while some medically necessary procedures for women were not. The U.S. Supreme Court then denies the State’s petition for writ of certiorari in 1999, declining to overturn the ruling.

Learn more: New Mexico Right to Choose/NARAL v. Johnson: New Mexico Supreme Court

United StatesNew Mexico Supreme Court Abortion

Valley Hospital Association v. Mat-Su Coalition for Choice (1997)

The Alaska Supreme Court establishes even stronger protections for abortion rights in Alaska than those guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In its decision, the court strikes down a policy at an Alaska hospital that prohibited abortions from being performed at the facility, finding for the first time that reproductive rights – including the right to abortion – are fundamental rights encompassed within the broader right to privacy in the Alaska Constitution.

Case background: Valley Hospital Association v. Mat-Su Coalition for Choice: Alaska Supreme Court

United StatesAlaska Supreme CourtAbortion

Women of Minnesota v. Gomez (1995)

The Minnesota Supreme Court establishes that the right to abortion is protected under the Minnesota Constitution independently of the U.S. Constitution, protecting abortion rights in in the state. In its ruling overturning a ban on the use of state funds to cover abortion care, the state’s highest court holds that prohibiting the use of public funds for therapeutic abortion infringes on a woman’s fundamental rights under the state constitution, concluding that the right of privacy under the Minnesota Constitution includes a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.

Case background: Women of Minnesota v. Gomez: Minnesota Supreme Court

United StatesMinnesota Supreme CourtAbortion

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)

The U.S. Supreme Court establishes the “undue burden” standard for determining if an abortion restriction is constitutional by whether it creates a substantial obstacle to accessing abortion care prior to viability. While the Court upholds four of five challenged Pennsylvania abortion restrictions, it strikes down a law requiring spousal notification prior to having an abortion and declines to overrule Roe v. Wade. Instead, the Court affirms the central holding of Roe that the right to abortion before viability is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, writing that to overrule Roe “would be simply to refuse to face the fact that for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

Learn more: Planned Parenthood v. Casey: U.S. Supreme Court

United StatesU.S. Supreme CourtAbortion

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