Why is abortion a human right?

General Comment No. 22 (2016) on the right to sexual and reproductive health stresses that this right is an integral part of the right to health enshrined in article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This important document states that men and women have a right to information on abortion-related issues, and that medicines for abortion and post-abortion care are essential medicines:

“… essential medicines should be available, including a wide range of contraceptive methods, such as condoms and emergency contraception, medicines for abortion and for post-abortion care …”

Also the draft General Comment 36 of the Human Rights Commission on Article 6 (Right to Life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is explicit in removing some barriers in access to adequate contraception and decriminalization of abortion:

“… States parties may choose to adopt measures designed to protect the life, potential for human life or dignity of unborn children, …  provided that such recognition does not result in violation of other rights under the Covenant, including the right to life of pregnant mothers and the prohibition against exposing them to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Thus, any legal restrictions on the ability of women to seek abortion must not jeopardize their lives or subject them to severe physical or mental pain or suffering. States parties whose laws generally prohibit voluntary terminations of pregnancy must, nonetheless, maintain legal exceptions for therapeutic abortions necessary for protecting the life of mothers, inter alia by not exposing them to serious health risks, and for situations in which carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the mother severe mental anguish, such as cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the fetus suffers from fatal abnormalities.

Furthermore, States parties should not regulate pregnancy or abortion in a manner that would compel women to seek clandestine illegal abortions that could endanger their lives. For example, they should not criminalize pregnancies by unmarried women or apply criminal sanctions against women undergoing abortion or against physicians assisting them in doing so.”

Finally, General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence
against women (2017) of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states in Article 18:

“Violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as forced sterilizations, forced abortion, forced pregnancy, criminalisation of abortion, denial or delay of safe abortion and post-abortion care, forced continuation of pregnancy, abuse and mistreatment of women and girls seeking sexual and reproductive health information, goods and services, are forms of gender-based violence that, depending on the circumstances, may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”



Type of resource: Books and reports

Health and Human Rights Journal – special section on abortion and human rights (2017)
Health and Human Rights Journal

Open resource
Type of resource: Manuals and guidelines

Providers as Advocates for Safe Abortion Care: A Training Manual (2009)

Open resource