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The Right to Abortion and the European Convention on Human Rights

In Search of Consensus among Member-States


Abortion bans are back in Vogue! Nearly 165 years after the first massive demonstration on women’s rights, discussions on the extent to which interference with female bodies falls within States’ margin of appreciation (‘MoA’) remain apropos. Indeed, the recent Polish near-absolute abortion ban has revived the debate on the existence of a foetus’ right to life and balancing it with women’s right to abortion.

Against this background, the present post sheds light on the status of the ‘right to abortion’ in international law. To this end, it explores the status of this putative right through the lenses of the relevant jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) and other regional bodies as well as of the customary interpretative tools enshrined in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (‘VCLT’).

A Foetus’ “Right to Life” v. A Woman’s “Right to Abortion”

The ECtHR Grand Chamber most explicitly stated its position on the foetus’ right to life in its famous Vo v. France judgment. Precisely, it highlighted that the unborn is not regarded as a “person” directly protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’) Article 2 and that ‘if the unborn do have a “right” to “life”, it is implicitly limited by the mother’s rights and interests’ (para 80). It further noted that the ECHR institutions have not ‘ruled out the possibility that in certain circumstances safeguards may be extended to the unborn child’ (Vo v. France, para 80). In this passage, the Court seems to have distinguished between the right to life on one hand and safeguards that may, under certain circumstances, be extended to the unborn on the other; the ECtHR does not regard the unborn as a holder of the right to life but rather as a beneficiary of some safeguards under certain circumstances.

On the existence of a right to abortion, the Court underlined – just as the Commission already had (Brüggemann and Scheuten v. Germany, para 61) – that, although legislation regulating the interruption of pregnancy touches upon the sphere of private life, protected by ECHR Article 8(1), the norm ‘cannot be interpreted as meaning that pregnancy and its termination are, as a principle, solely a matter of the private life of the mother’ (Vo v. France, para 80). Instead, ‘the issue’ is ‘determined by weighing up various, and sometimes conflicting, rights or freedoms claimed by a woman, a mother or a father in relation to one another or vis-à-vis an unborn child.’ (Vo v. France, para 80). The Court has clarified that when the pregnant woman’s life is risked, access to abortion is non-negotiable (X v. the United Kingdom, para 19).

In 2010, it further acknowledged a consensus amongst the substantial majority of ECHR States-parties towards allowing abortion on broader grounds than the risk to the pregnant woman’s health (A, B and C v. Ireland, para 235). However, it found that the MoA enjoyed by the States on the regulation of abortions remained broad and that allowing abortions only when the health of the mother is at stake, did not exceed this MoA (A, B and C v. Ireland, para 241). To reach this conclusion, the Court relied on applicants’ discretion to travel to other ECHR States-parties for the requested abortion.

Overview of ECHR Member-States’ Current Approach

Eleven years later, out of the 47 ECHR States-parties, 40 do not only acknowledge the legality of abortion on broader grounds, but have further legalised abortion on demand during the first 10 to 24 weeks of the pregnancy.

Conversely, 7 ECHR Member-States maintain strict anti-abortion policies, ranging from Malta and Andorra prohibiting abortions in all circumstances  [a deviation from the existing case-law of ECHR-institutions on the matter (X v. the United Kingdom, para 19)] to  San Marino and Liechtenstein, which allow abortions when the pregnancy poses a serious danger to the woman’s life or health, or results from rape or sexual assault. In Monaco and Hungary abortions are additionally allowed in cases of fetal deformity, whereas in Poland – although prohibited in case of fetal deformity – abortions are legal in cases of incest, rape, or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

These States send an explicit message of differentiated practice among ECHR Member States. Such practice of the ECHR does not qualify as an interpretative tool under VCLT Article 31(3)(b) (Villiger, pp. 431-432), which envisages a uniform subsequent state practice (or at least a convergent practice of the majority of States-parties, to which the other States-parties assent or do not oppose). This was most likely the basis of ECtHR’s pronouncement of a wide MoA enjoyed by the States on the regulation of abortions.

Towards a Holistic Interpretation of the ECHR

Still, the practice described can – and should – be taken into account as a supplementary tool of interpretation in a holistic appraisal of the ECHR [in line with VCLT Article 32]. In fact, against the background of the principle ex injuria, jus non oritur, according to which illegal acts do not create law and which can also serve as an interpretative tool (Pellet, pp. 7-9), the interpretative value of unlawful absolute anti-abortion state practices (i.e. of Malta and Andorra) decreases vis-à-vis the lawful practice of other ECHR-parties.

Furthermore, for the interpretation of ECHR Article 8 and the identification of the scope of the right to abortion entailed therein, inspiration may be drawn from relevant rules of international law [VCLT Article 31(3)(c)]. In this regard, the Human Rights Committee (‘HRCtee’) has repeatedly (Zureick, pp. 125-130) underlined that regulations restricting a woman’s access to abortion in cases of rape or incest are incompatible with Article 7 (freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading behaviour) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”). Similarly, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has called for States to allow abortion beyond cases where pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. Likewise, the HRCtee clarified that restrictions on access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality violate inter alia Article 7 of the ICCPR and that the ability of pregnant women to travel abroad in order to obtain the required abortion did not purify such violation (Mellet v. Ireland, para. 9; Whelan v. Ireland, para. 9). In a similar fashion, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (‘IACHR’) has persistently urged States to safeguard women’s reproductive rights. In fact, in a Joint Statement with human rights experts, the IACHR’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Women called on States to legalise abortions – at the very minimum – in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers a woman’s mental and physical health.

Against this background, seeing the ECtHR acknowledge that a Member-State does not violate its ECHR obligations simply because another ECHR Member-State steps in and assures the protection of women’s access to abortion seems rather obscure. However, this is the approach the Court has so far embraced (A, B and C v. Ireland, para. 239) and maintained, despite criticism (Ghráinne and McMahon, 569).

After all, the ECtHR’s consideration of predominant moral perceptions in one State (A, B and C v. Ireland, para. 239) does not align with a contextual and evolutive interpretation of the ECHR. Precisely, it has been argued that, as during the drafting of the ECHR, abortion was illegal in most States, the intention of the drafters could not have been to grant a right to abortion, especially a right to abortion on demand. Aside from the flawed perception of human rights as derivative rights, inherent in this argumentation, the latter neglects the intention of the drafters to create a document adaptable to the times (Tyrer v. the United Kingdom, para 31). In fact, protests on the legalisation of abortion on demand  indicate a changing moral perception of abortion, buttressed by the practice of a majority of ECHR-parties.

Against this background, it seems that it is about time that the so far unspoken right to abortion found its way into the ECtHR’s jurisprudence!

Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni
Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni is a Ph.D. Candidate and Research Associate at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV), Ruhr-University Bochum. She is a Managing Editor of Völkerrechtsblog.
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  1. Dear Patrick M.,

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    In the above article, I have highlighted that the court, after recapitulating the jurisprudence of the ECHR instituttions, noted that ‘the unborn child is not regarded as a “person” directly protected by Article 2 of the Convention and that if the unborn do have a “right” to “life”, it is implicitly limited by the mother’s rights and interests. The Convention institutions have not, however, ruled out the possibility that in certain circumstances safeguards may be extended to the unborn child’ (Vo v. France, para 80). I further underlined the terminology used by the Court here. The Court does not refer to any safeguards of the foetus as a person’s rights. It mentions that in certain circumstances safeguards may be extended to the unborn child. Thus, from my viewpoint the Court does not equate a foetus with a person and rights’ holder, not only because it deems the former as an entity, to which safeguards – and not rights – may be in certain circumstances extended, but also because it indicates a perception of the foetus as an entity, which is not a holder of direct rights, as is the case with persons. The foetus’ safeguards are only extended to it.

    At any rate, regardless the question on the foetus’ status and safeguards, I argue above that the Court should have adopted a much broader interpretation of the right to abortion, which would be in line with VCLT. I would further like to bring to your attention the dissenting opinions of Judge Rozakis, Tulkens, Fura, Hirvelä, Malinverni and Poalelungi, as well as the concurring opinion on Judge Finlay Geoghegan in A B and C v. Ireland, who highlight that a broad consensus has been reached among ECHR parties on abortion on demand and, thus, that the margin of appreciation on the matter should be seen as narrow.

    I hope that the above answer clarifies my argumentation in this article.

    Kind regards,
    Sissy Katsoni

    • Dear Sissy Katsoni.

      I have also put an emphasis oh the “circumstances examined to date” as abortion on demand is a blind spot in case law at the Court. You have simply restated your previous position ignoring the elephant in the room. What is clear from Vo v. France is that the Court does not know who is or who isn’t a person or human. Thus, the status of the unborn child is not resolved. The Court stated itself that it is not “desireable” or “possible” to do so.

      Regarding your mention of concurring opinion in A.B.C. v. Ireland and how the “margin of appreciation” should be narrow. The abortion cases against Poland and Ireland clearly show that there is no right to abortion. And it is clear that every member state has te posibility to restrict access to abortion as for example Poland does today or to allow abortion on demand as many stated to. The margin is clearly pretty wide.

      Since you mention VCLT I’ll mention that Article 31 states: “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.” And the fact that at the time the Convention was drafted there was a broad consensus on the criminal nature of “abortion on demand”. And the Court itself has never excluded prenatal life from it’s field of allpication. As President Jean-Paul Costa explained in his separate opinion under Vo v. France: “Had the article 2 been considered to be entirely inapplicable, there would have been no point and this applies to the present case also – in examining the question of foetal protection and the possible violation of Article 2, or in using this reasoning to find that there had been no violation of that provision.”

      The issues of “european consensus”, “margin of appreciation” and “living instrument” are important but secondary. And greater care should be made when examining case law. Primary issue is on the status of the unborn child and it’s seems to the Court it is not “desireable” or “possible” to determine who is and how isn’t a “person”.

      Since your argumentation is flawed. I recommend an article on Ejil Talk titled “In Defence of a More Sophisticated and Nuanced Approach To Abortion: A Response to Gregor Puppinck”. You’re making the same mistake as the authors of the article concentrating on the secondary issues. As stated there in comments, if you really want to defend your position you should demonstrate that:

      1. the Court excludes the unborn person from the scope of the Convention;
      2. access to abortion on demand can be claimed based on the Convention;
      3. the refusal to grant access to abortion on demand infringes a right guaranteed by the Convention;
      4. the practice of abortion on demand does not curtail any right and interest guaranteed by the Convention.

      Seems even the authors of the mentioned article have failed to demonstrate that to date.

      • Dear Patrick M.,

        I cannot help but disagree with most points stated in your comment.

        First of all, the Court has indeed avoided ruling on whether the foetus falls within the personal scope of the right to life. From my viewpoint, however, the indications that the Court has provided in its jurisprudence seem to suggest that it does not equate the foetus to persons (e.g. the bearing person). The foetus is rather seen as a potential beneficiary of safeguards under certain circumstances. I believe that the reference to the ‘circumstances examined to date’ does not affect this conclusion, and if it did, States’ practice would have to be taken into consideration. This state practice shows that abortion on demand is allowed during several weeks of the pregnancy and that the state practice allowing abortion on demand is growing. Thus, from my viewpoint, this would verify the initial indication that the ECtHR does not perceive foetus as a person.

        Secondly, regarding the hierarchy among the tools of treaty interpretation, to which you refer in your comment, I am of the view that a holistic interpretation of treaties is always more favourable [on the lack of hierarchy among all VCLT Art 31 paragraphs, see: E Methymaki and A Tzanakopoulos, ‘Masters of Puppets? Reassertion of Control through Joint – Investment Treaty Interpretation’ in Kulick (ed.), Reassertion of Control over the Investment Treaty Regime (CUP 2016) 169]. After all, just as a right to abortion is not explicitly mentioned in the ECHR, a right to a healthy environment is also not included, and not thought of during the drafting of the treaty, etc. Nevertheless, the jurisprudence of the ECtHR has developed its in environmental matters on account of the fact that the exercise of certain Convention rights may be undermined by the existence of harm to the environment and exposure to environmental risks. And it seems that it will continue to do so… I believe that the same is done in abortion cases and hope that the Court will continue doing so.

        For these reasons I agree with the post on EJIL:Talk!, which you reference in your comment, and I grossly disagree with your comment and Gregor Pupnick’s relevant analysis. I guess we can conclude with an ‘agree to disagree’ epilogue.

        All the best,
        Sissy Katsoni

  2. Owing to the very substance of the act, killing an innocent human being can never become a “right”, even if – which unfortunately never can be excluded – a prestigious institution like the ECtHR should commit the tragic error of “recognising” it as such. And it is also a tragic error of the author of this piece that she seems to be striving for a political “victory” in court that would actually be nothing but a defeat of humanity.

    The ECtHR in fact has abdicated its role as a protector of human rights when, precisely in Vo v. France, it first transformed “human rights” into “person rights”, and then made the claim that “it is neither possible nor desirable” to determine who is, and who isn’t, a “person”. Of course, there can be no serious doubt among educated people that the human embryo is a human being – he is, after all, not a dog, or a cat, or a bonsai tree. As long as human rights are what their name suggests they are, the human embryo is a holder of human rights. Abortion, far from being a human right, is very obviously a human rights violation.

    This changes when, as in Vo, the concept of “human rights” is substituted by “person rights”. While the question of the qualification of the embryo as a human being is, as the Court recognises, essentially an objective scientific question to which we all know the answer, the new idea of re-branding human rights as “person rights” opens up the way towards unfettered subjectivism. That precisely appears to be the purpose. Where everybody has the right to define the concept of “person” however he sees fit, it is indeed going to be “impossible” to identify common ground. But by saying that that it is “not desirable” to answer the question whether the embryo is a “person”, the Court has let its mask slip: here we are in the presence of a judicial institution that is not seeking, but fleeing, insight, lest that insight would lead to an outcome that might be unpopular in certain quarters. One cannot take such a court seriously, one can only regret the power and prestige it (still) enjoys…

    • Dear Mr. Cornides,
      Thank you very much for your comment.
      Firstly, I would like to draw your attention to Vo v. France para. 80, where the Court, summarising the Convention’s institutions findings in previous decisions, explicitly notes that ‘the unborn child is not regarded as a “person” directly protected by Article 2 of the Convention’. Furthermore, as I understand from your comment, you have seen the Vo. judgement as suggesting a differentiation between “human rights” on one hand and “persons’ rights” on the other. However, such a differentiation is not reflected in the jurisprudence of the ECtHR, which uses the terms “person” and “individual” and “persons’ rights” and “human rights” as synonyms (indicatively Tyrer v. the U.K, para. 33).
      On the contrary, in the Vo. judgement, the Court makes a differentiation between a person’s human rights on one hand and the safeguards that may – under certain circumstances – be extended to the unborn child on the other (Vo. v France, para. 80). Against this background, it becomes clear that the ECtHR does not regard the unborn as a holder of the right to life but rather as a beneficiary of some safeguards under certain circumstances.
      Finally, on a metalegal note, which seems to be running through your comment as well, I would like to underline that fully acknowledging females’ right of physical integrity (a right which inheres in every individual and can therefore only be acknowledged by human rights instruments and fora and not granted thereby) will not defeat humanity but it will rather help render humanity (more) humane.
      Kind regards,
      Spyridoula Katsoni

      • Dear Mr. Katsoni,
        Vo v. France para. 80 does not state the thing you claim it does. What it states is “that in the circumstances examined to date by the Convention institutions”…

        Emphasis on “circumstances” examined to date. As a matter of fact ECHR has never excluded the unborn person from the scope of the Convention. Abortion on demand is a “blind spot” in case law and the Court has never concluded that it does not violate the Convetion. Thus the member states are given a wide “margin of appreciation” enabling them to regulate abortion.

        Given your statement as in Tryer v. U.K. about ECHR regarding “person rights” and “human rights” as synonyms taken together with the Courts own claim that it is “neither possible nor desireable” to determine who is and who isn’t a “person”. I hope you see the elephant in the room?

        The “European Court of HUMAN Rights” does not know who is and who isn’t HUMAN and it’s not desireable or possible to determine that?

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