Last week, the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which is responsible for overseeing treaty compliance committees, released the concluding observations of the most recent sessions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee and Human Rights Committee (HRC). Both committees used the July sessions to pressure countries appearing before them to liberalize abortion laws, even though no UN human rights treaty mentions abortion.The HRC, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), told Ireland that it “should bring its abortion laws into line with the Covenant” so that women would “not have to resort to illegal or unsafe abortion that could put their lives at risk or to abortions abroad.” The HRC cited Article 6 of the ICCPR, which states “every human being has the inherent right to life,” as justification for the concluding observation.
Since 2003, HRC has pressured at least 14 countries to legalize abortion or liberalize laws by misinterpreting the ICCPR provisions like the “right to life.” Abortion rights advocates claimed victory in the HRC in 2005, when the Committee made an unprecedented ruling against Peru for allegedly violating the rights of a woman who was denied permission by the government to obtain an abortion.
According to an analysis by Focus on the Family’s Thomas Jacobson, who has been monitoring the work of the CEDAW Committee and the HRC, “The HRC now interprets this article to mean that the ‘right to life’ of a pregnant woman is violated if she is not permitted to terminate the life of her preborn child. Pregnancy has come to be viewed as life-threatening (instead of life-giving). To the HRC, the ‘right to life’ has become the ‘right’ to abortion.”
No binding UN treaty includes a right to abortion. Observers are becoming increasingly concerned, however, by how mainstream committees like the HRC are following the CEDAW trend of misinterpreting treaty articles and questioning nations about their abortion laws. Over the last ten years, CEDAW has pressured over 60 nations on abortion.
At the last CEDAW session alone, CEDAW Committee members questioned Lithuania, Nigeria, Finland, the United Kingdom and Slovakia on their abortion laws, using lowering maternal mortality as a pretext. CEDAW Committee members blasted Lithuania on a draft law which would limit when and in what circumstances abortions are allowed. Committee members also sharply criticized Slovakia’s concordat with the Holy See, which protects the right of health care workers to conscientiously object to participating in abortions.
While the rulings of treaty bodies are technically non-binding, abortion activists have brought litigation throughout the world citing the ruling of UN human rights treaty bodies, like the CEDAW Committee, in challenging laws against abortion. Such arguments helped convince the Colombian constitutional court to liberalize that country’s restrictions on the practice.
Both the CEDAW Committee and HRC are scheduled to hold their next sessions in October in Geneva.