At the United Nations in Geneva, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has urged the UN Human Rights Committee to reaffirm that the right to life – as determined by Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – starts at birth, and called upon the Committee to frame abortion and suicide as rights that are compatible with Article 6, not representative of exceptions to it.
The IHEU, along with our sister organisation, the European Humanist Federation (EHF), was invited to attend a half-day discussion on the right to life organised by the Human Rights Committee ahead of its publishing a General Comment (number 36) on Article 6. The UN Human Rights Committee is the Committee in charge of monitoring compliance and implementation of the ICCPR by its State parties. UN General Comments are authoritative interpretations of individual human rights. They provide orientation for the practical implementation of human rights and form a set of criteria for evaluating the progress of states in their implementation of these rights.
During the discussion, Elizabeth O’Casey, the IHEU’s head of delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, made a statement urging the Committee to reaffirm that the right to life starts at birth and not prenatally as all the anti-choice groups attending the meeting called for. She said that, echoing the language of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which states that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”), international human rights instruments protecting the right to life do not extend this protection to foetuses or embryos. She also pointed out that there are a number of other human rights – for example, the right to health, privacy, or security of person – that support a woman’s right to decide independently in matters related to abortion.
O’Casey also raised the issue of maternal mortality, which she described as a phenomenon existing in diametric opposition to the right to life. 13% of all maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion.
She highlighted the role of conscientious objection and religious belief in inhibiting the provision of sexual and reproductive health services in some states, calling on the Committee to outline the limits, in the context of Article 6, to the manifestation of one’s religion or belief specifically in relation to abortion.
O’Casey argued that there needs to be a genuine focus on the right to life of women and girls, where no compromised balance between asserting a woman’s right to life and that of an embryo or foetus is possible.
The number of written submissions from anti-choice civil society groups ahead of the meeting was very high, as was the attendance at the meeting itself.
Anti-choice groups represented included Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), Centre for Family and Human Rights, Priests for Life, Canada Silent No More, WOOMB International, European Centre for Law and Justice, ADF International, Family & Life and Pro Life Campaign. All of these groups called for Article 6 to apply from conception – according to Priests for Life on the grounds of “scientific evidence.” SPUC described abortion as “murder” one of “the most heinous of crimes,” whilst other groups falsely claimed that abortion can bring about breast cancer and mental illness.
There were some groups who made statements in support of a woman’s right to abortion; these included the Center for Reproductive Rights, Safe Abortion Women’s Right, and Reproductive Health Matters.
Along with over 50 other NGOs, the IHEU supported the statement delivered by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Human Rights Committee will now look to write a first draft of their General Comment (number 36) on the right to life and will consult states and civil society when it has done so.
Ahead of the half-day discussion in Geneva, the IHEU made a longer written submission on Article 6 of the ICCPR. Which, along with discussing abortion and the rights of women, also looked at the issue of suicide in relation to the right to life. On suicide, we said that, “the indignity suffered by those prevented from ending their own lives at a time of their choosing, being forced to live in pain or deep unhappiness, being patronised and infantilised, works in diametric opposition to the foundation of human rights. It goes against the inherent dignity of the human person, a dignity recognised in the preamble of the ICCPR.”
We argued that, “none of the rights giving rise to a right to suicide – such as self-determination, dignity, freedom from degrading treatment or torture – undermine Article 6 in any way”.