Reproductive Rights in the European Court of Human Rights


In the past few decades, European countries have made significant advances in women’s reproductive rights, but the struggle is far from over. A woman’s right to control her own body remains elusive in many countries. Ireland, Malta, Poland, and Portugal still impose severe restrictions on abortion, with serious consequences for the health, social status and quality of life of many women. In Portugal, women continue to be prosecuted for having abortions and in Slovakia, Romani women have been forcibly sterilized.1 Women in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe do not have access to the full range of family planning methods; the region has one of the lowest contraceptive prevalence rates in the world. Access to reproductive health information and services, including unbiased sexuality education, is a problem in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe. In many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, adolescents and certain ethnic and immigrant minorities face particular discrimination and barriers to exercising their reproductive rights.

The European Court of Human Rights (Court), the body empowered to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention), has tremendous potential to advance reproductive rights in the region. It can receive complaints from individuals alleging that a country has violated the Convention. The Court can issue legally binding judgments against the state.

The Court can advance reproductive rights throughout Europe in at least three ways:

* by articulating and applying international and regional standards on human rights, including reproductive rights, when these rights are not adequately protected at the national level;

* by guaranteeing reparations for victims whose rights have been violated; and

* by encouraging countries to undertake legislative and policy changes to better protect reproductive rights.

This briefing paper provides a short background on the European human rights system, including an explanation of the European Convention on Human Rights and its enforcement mechanisms, including the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission of Human Rights (Commission). It then examines the most important Court and Commission judgments related to reproductive rights divided by issue; the judgments under each issue are followed by a boxed analysis of the decisions and how they can be used to address or advance related reproductive rights issues.2 There are two appendixes; one provides information on how to bring a claim before the European Court of Human Rights and the other contains relevant provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.


August 2004


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