This page offers topic-specific guidance on the use of the Human Rights and Reproductive Health Matrix, created by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported POLICY Project Human Rights Working Group. To view other aspects of the Matrix, including guidance on other topics, please click on the Matix icon above.

Reproductive Rights

Definition

Reproductive rights recognize the basic rights of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.[1] Additionally, reproductive rights affirm individuals? right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion, and violence.[2] Reproductive rights thus refer to certain human rights already enshrined in international and national laws and consensus statements.

Links to Reproductive Health

Reproductive rights make meaningful the attainment of the highest standard of reproductive health, which includes prevention of gender-based violence, education and information about contraception, access to family planning methods, access to appropriate health-care services enabling safe pregnancy and childbirth[3] and information about prevention of sexually transmitted infections.[4] Counties? high rates of maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS infection incidence, for example, clearly demonstrate the need to improve reproductive health through improving reproductive rights.

         Maternal deaths are largely preventable, caused by the inability of women to access timely, skilled, and medically appropriate care. In turn, gender inequalities that undervalue women and their reproductive health needs are the most formidable barriers to women?s access of emergency obstetric care.

         HIV transmission is enabled and facilitated by discrimination and violations of other human rights. Women are increasingly infected with HIV because women are denied HIV/AIDS education and information, unable to obtain condoms, or forced to engage in unprotected sex.

Human Rights Implicated

Reproductive rights are implicit in the right to health.[5] People are entitled to complete well-being, not only in mental and physical health, but ?in all matters relating to the reproductive system and its functions and processes.?[6] Reproductive rights do not encompass only the right to reproductive health, however. The protection of the following other human rights enable the provision and acquisition of reproductive health:

  • Right to non-discrimination based on sex/gender ? requiring countries to redress discriminatory laws, such as inequitable inheritance provisions, and social practices, such as lack of male involvement in family planning efforts, that limit the power many women and girls have over their sexual and reproductive lives.
  • Right to life ? demanding prevention of maternal mortality and life-threatening sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV/AIDS.
  • Right to liberty and security of the person ? recognizing human rights violations in compelled sterilization and abortion or by criminal sanctions against individuals? resort to contraception, voluntary sterilization, or abortion.
  • Right to freedom from torture of other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment ? demanding the condemnation of rape as a deliberate instrument of war and ethnic cleansing and the prohibition of female genital mutilation.
  • Right to privacy ? limiting compulsory acquisitions of information about an individual?s sexual or reproductive behavior and imposing a duty on those who receive sexual or reproductive health information not to disclose it without the individual?s consent.
  • Right to information ? protecting the ability of all people to seek, receive, and impart information about reproduction and sexuality, including advice about family planning. Also ensured is the individual?s right to receive full information about sexual processes and disease transmission to protect herself against sexual abuse or infection.

Relevant Human Rights Documents

All major human rights treaties and consensus statements obligate countries to protect and promote rights that relate to reproductive health. Of all human rights documents, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a treaty binding on 165 countries, provides the strongest legal support for the right to reproductive health per se. In Article 12, CEDAW guarantees non-discrimination in access to health care, including affordable services and information related to family planning, pregnancy, and the post-natal period.

Although non-binding, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo) Programme and the 1995 World Conference on Women (Beijing) Platform are highly persuasive consensus statements that confirm the centrality of reproductive rights in advancing the health of populations and the status of women. Beijing in particular recognizes women?s right to control their own sexuality and sexual relations and to decide upon these matters on an equal basis with men.

Key Human Rights Arguments You Could Use

Countries must follow the Cairo Programme to be in compliance with their duties to promote, protect, and fulfill women?s rights to good reproductive health. The CEDAW Committee, the United Nations body that monitors countries? CEDAW compliance, declares that governments should ?ensure universal access for all women to a full range of high-quality and affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive health services.? The Committee uses the uses the Cairo Programme in developing performance standards to determine whether countries are in compliance with their obligations to uphold reproductive health and rights.

Legal Remedies You Could Try

Subjecting a country to international scrutiny is an effective way of pressing a country to modify laws and policies that permit human rights abuse. The international legal system offers several ways to advocate for country-level improvement of reproductive rights.

  • Advocates desiring to prevent or redress a country?s violation of reproductive rights can press their country to ratify CEDAW. The process of awareness raising about human rights entitlements and reproductive health needs can empower communities to demand governmental action to improve reproductive health.
  • Countries party to CEDAW should be encouraged to adopt national laws and policies reflecting the principles in CEDAW. Laws and policies create the framework through which governments affect the behavior of people, thereby enhancing government accountability to citizens? reproductive rights, shaping people?s understanding of equity and justice, and limiting private violations of reproductive rights.[7]
  • Advocates can also submit reports to the CEDAW Committee detailing a country?s purported violations of reproductive rights and requesting the Committee?s sanction of these violations and guidance to prevent reoccurrences of abuse. The glare of international scrutiny and censure, and the help of international guidance, can spur countries to ensure that laws and policies are consistent with human rights standards and supportive of reproductive health.

A note on legal remedies:
These topics highlight legal strategies health advocates can take to remedy situations abusive of reproductive health and human rights.

Legal remedies, such as submitting a complaint to an international treaty body or revising laws to comply with international human rights standards, promote enabling policy environments critical to promoting reproductive health and gender equity. At the same time, the social change needed to ensure human rights requires a range of advocacy strategies including, but not limited to, the legal system. For instance, advocates may need to focus on how laws are actually implemented. Or advocacy efforts may need to focus on the cultural beliefs that contradict basic rights or on educating men and women about their rights. Advocates should assess which approaches are most promising for promoting human rights within a given context. When possible, advocates should include legal remedies so to create the legal change necessary for reproductive health policy change.





[1] Reproductive health implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition is the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods of their choice for regulation of fertility which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant. Further Actions and Initiatives to Implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing +5), para. 72 (i)

[3] ICPD Programme, para. 7.2.

[4] Cf. ICPD Programme, para. 7.6

[5] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art. 12.

[6] ICPD Programme, para. 7.2.

[7] Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, Reproductive Rights 2000: Moving Forward 12; World Health Organization, Considerations for Formulating Reproductive Health Laws 7.

This Topic was written by Genevieve Grabman, JD, MPH, in collaboration with Anne K. Eckman, PhD and POLICY's Gender and Human Rights Working Groups. Questions and comments should be directed to policyinfo@futuresgroup.com.