Is Access to Abortion a Human Right: An International Law Viewpoint


The practice of deliberate termination of pregnancy, i.e., abortion, has been recognized since ancient times. Around the end of the 19th century, most states prohibited abortion legally in their jurisdiction. However, many states afterward terminated the prohibition at different times. In modern days, the legal status of abortion varies from one jurisdiction to another. Many jurisdictions allow abortion and ensure medically and legally safe procedures for the concerned persons. Some jurisdictions, on the other hand, prohibit abortion by law. The jurisdictions which allow abortion may also have several degrees, such as gestational limits, age requirement, limitation on the duration of the pregnancy, reasonability of the request for an abortion, e.g., rape, incest, socio-economic status, medical concerns, etc. Furthermore, many societies view the subject of abortion from different religious, moral, ethical, or political points of view. In fact, restrictions on the free choice of terminate pregnancy derive from three basic reasons, namely- (i) the social stigma and lack of awareness on the importance of access to safe abortion facilities, (ii) the religious concept of abortion is considered a sin and a mode of moral transgression, and finally (iii) the protection of the life of unborn children from murder. As a result, the debate of access to abortion as a fundamental right of a person remains controversial. Interestingly, studies reveal that abortion rates are similar in the countries having legalized abortion procedures and countries having the contrary (WHO, 2007). Moreover, studies also show that the rate of abortion decreases as access to contraception increases (ICMA, 2014). Therefore, the question remains whether all states should de-criminalize abortion to ensure access to safe and secure abortion facilities for women. The debate has recently been revived by the controversy of the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark verdict of the Court which conferred the right to abortion as a constitutional right for the citizens of the United States. Although the decision of the US Supreme Court does not have extraterritorial prevalence, it certainly stirred up the global discourse on the matter. 


Status of abortion rights in international law 

International human rights bodies play an active role in favor of the accessibility of safe abortion in recent times. The guarantee of access to abortion is considered a human rights concern as well as a public health concern (Saez, 2022). There have been numerous decisions and arrangements made in favor of safe abortion concerning the broader impact of the right to abortion in the lives of women and young girls, as well as the effects of current laws. Comparisons have also been made between the existing rules and the international human rights standard by interpreting the provisions of international human rights in an authoritative manner. Denial of a right to abortion is considered a form of discrimination and a threat to the protection of human rights as all countries are compelled to ensure the protection of the rights of women concerning sexual and reproductive health. Inaccessibility or partial accessibility of safe and legal abortion facilities poses a threat to rights to life, healthcare, information, and protection from torture or cruelty. It can also be a threat to the right to privacy and liberty of the concerned women. Experts also assert that it is a violation of the right to conscience and religion of a woman. Each of these rights is an internationally recognized human right and is set out within different human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Moreover, The United Nations Human Rights Committee in its General Comment on the Right to Life under the ICCPR (2018) recognized the right to access abortion as a human right. Furthermore, the rights relating to women’s reproductive health have been recognized by the United Nations Population Fund multiple times, which also addressed the importance of access to such rights and facilities for safe abortion as a matter of protection of reproductive health. In addition, these rights are also recognized by numerous treaties on the regional level, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. 



The right to access safe and legal abortion is an internationally recognized human right and is protected by numerous human rights bodies and treaties. States agreeing to these documents are obligated to ensure access to safe abortion and relevant facilities to protect the human rights relating to it. It is an obvious assertion that many women are unable to carry a child due to socio-economic reasons (HRW, 2022). As a result, a barrier to their individual choice of whether to carry a child is a threat to their right to conscience and liberty. Furthermore, the World Health Organization recognizes abortion as one of the safest medical procedures, and any complications relating to it can be avoided if the guideline authorized by WHO is maintained. Finally, since criminalization of abortion does not decrease the number of abortions, rather increases the number of unsafe and illegal abortions, it is time that the right is now recognized in all states to avoid such a medical and socio-econimic hazard. 




Abortion Rates Similar In Countries That Legalize, Prohibit Procedure, Study Says. (2007). Medical News Today. Retrieved 10–15, from ases/85456.php 

Q&A: Access to Abortion is a Human Right. (2022, July 5). Human Rights Watch. 

Sáez, M. (2022, July 6). The US Is Falling Behind Other Democracies When It Comes to Abortion. Human Rights Watch omes-abortion 

UN Human Rights Committee. (2019, September). General comment no. 36 : Article 6, Right to life : Human Rights Committee (CCPR/C/GC/36). 

World Health Organization. (2007). Unsafe abortion Global and regional estimates of the incidence of unsafe abortion and associated mortality in 2003 (ISBN 978 92 4 159612 1). WHO Library.