Human rights begin at birth: international law and the claim of fetal rights

by Rhonda Copelon, Christina Zampas, Elizabeth Brusie, Jacqueline deVore

Reproductive Health Matters 2005;13(26):120-29  (Open access)


In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation of human rights, the text and negotiating history of the ‘‘right to life’’ explicitly premises human rights on birth. Likewise, other international and regional human rights treaties, as drafted and/or subsequently interpreted, clearly reject claims that human rights should attach from conception or any time before birth. They also recognise that women’s right to life and other human rights are at stake where restrictive abortion laws are in place. This paper reviews the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the Inter-American Human Rights Agreements and African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in this regard. No one has the right to subordinate another in the way that unwanted pregnancy subordinates a woman by requiring her to risk her own health and life to save her own child. Thus, the long-standing insistence of women upon voluntary motherhood is a demand for minimal control over one’s destiny as a human being. From a human rights perspective, to depart from voluntary motherhood would impose upon women an extreme form of discrimination and forced labour.


NOTE: Anti-abortion claims that “the unborn” (a horrid word) have rights came up in an online discussion. This was at least the third time this subject has arisen during conversations I’ve had in the past week alone, and in relation to three different countries. It became obvious that the anti-abortion movement is pushing this line in all three countries – as they have pushed it again and again and again periodically over the years. Each and every time, their claims have to be rejected and countered. I decided I would share with you the above paper, which I had the privilege to publish in Reproductive Health Matters in 2005, a paper on this topic that I think everyone should read and whose first author I think everyone should know about. Marge Berer