Get the facts: human rights and abortion

[A]s a first step to safeguarding the human rights of Australian women, all Australian jurisdictions must decriminalize abortion [1].

Internationally as well as here in Australia, human rights groups support the decriminalisation of abortion.

Amnesty International has urged all countries still holding these laws to repeal them [2]; Human Rights Watch continues to document the result of criminalised abortion and lack of abortion access [3].

Locally, human rights experts including Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, the Human Rights Law Centre, and the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties all support the decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland.

The United Nations Committee has declared access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental human right for women and girls. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has specified that ‘it is discriminatory for a State party to refuse to legally provide for the performance of certain reproductive health services for women.’ International human rights bodies have opposed laws criminalising abortion as discriminatory against women and a barrier to the right to access health care.

– Benedict Coyne, President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

In addition, the report by the Queensland Parliamentary Committee which examined Rob Pyne’s initial abortion decriminalisation bill in 2016 stated in their own report that:

The prevailing rights of all women to be able to access safe pregnancy termination procedures, lawfully, have been recognised in multiple international treaties and by key committees and bodies as fundamental tenets of equal human treatment and self-determination.

The Bill’s provisions, in decriminalising abortion, effectively align the law of Queensland with Australia’s international legal obligations as a ratifying country to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women [4].

Kate Marchesi, law graduate and co-founder of Young Queenslanders for the Right to Choose (just one of the excellent organisations supporting our #itsnot1899 campaign), wrote an excellent examination of human rights law as it relates to abortion, which we highly recommend a read of unless you’re upset by profanities and/or Mean Girls references. In it, she states:

Human rights are compatible with abortion. International human rights bodies have been supportive of reproductive choice since the 19-f*cking-60’s. 

These include the UN Human Rights Commission, The UN Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, just to name a few.

They have consistently called for the decriminalisation of abortion, and in particular, the removal of criminal sanctions for women seeking abortion.

She’s right. Significant barriers to abortion access have been found by the United Nations to violate women’s human rights. In June 2016 the UN’s human rights committee ruled that Ireland’s restrictive abortion legislation subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The committee examined the case of one woman who was forced to travel to the UK to have an abortion in 2011, even though the fetus she was carrying had anomalies that were incompatible with life – ie, would die during the pregnancy or shortly after birth. They ruled that the fact she had to ‘travel to another country, at personal expense, was separated from the support of her family, and return while not fully recovered’ violated her human rights [5]. The committee further ruled that Ireland should ‘amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy…to ensure compliance with the covenant [on civil and political rights], including effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland.’

In late 2011, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Health Anand Grover released a report examining the interaction between the right to health and criminal laws relating to sexual and reproductive health. In it, he stated that the right to sexual and reproductive health is a fundamental part of the right to health. He also stated that criminal and other legal restrictions on abortion violate the right to health, and that the application of such restrictions as a means to achieving public health outcomes is ‘often ineffective and disproportionate’. The report urged all UN member states to decriminalise abortion [6].

The World Health Organisation recognises that:

women are frequently denied access to sexual and reproductive health care and services in developing and developed countries. This is a human rights violation that is deeply engrained in societal values about women’s sexuality [7].

While Australia has no national human rights mechanism, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory both have instruments designed to protect the human rights of those within their jurisdictions. In the ACT, this is the Human Rights Act 2004 [8]; in Victoria, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities 2006 [9]. Interestingly, these were the first two jurisdictions in Australia to decriminalise abortion.



[1] R Sifris and S Belton (2017) ‘Australia: Abortion and Human Rights’ Health and Human Rights Journal Vol 19 No 1, June 2017. Available online at

[2] ‘Protecting the rights of women: Kate Gilmore speaks’ Human Rights Defender 9 August 2007. Available online at

[3] See for example A State of Isolation: Access to Abortion for Women in Ireland Human Rights Watch 2010. Available online at

[4] Abortion Law Reform (Woman’s Right to Choose) Amendment Bill 2016 and Inquiry into laws governing termination of pregnancy in Queensland. Report No 24, 55th Parliament. Health, Communities, Disability Services, and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee. Brisbane: August 2016, p34. Available online at

[5] Ireland abortion ban subjected woman to suffering and discrimination – UN experts United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 9 June 2016. Online at

[6] Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Available in full on the United Nations website at

[7] Health and human rights; Fact sheet No 323, by the World Health Organisation, December 2015. Available online at

[8] Human Rights Act 2004 is available online at 5.pdf.

[9] Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities is available online at