ILP Summary of Strategic Planning 2003

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The following is a reproduction of a program summary of various meetings held by the International Legal Program of the Center for Reproductive Rights between September - November, 2003. This summary was submitted to the Congressional Record by Congressman Chris Smith on Monday, December 8, 2003, where it was reprinted in its entirety.[1]

Documents Submitted to the Congressional Record

On Monday, December 8, 2003, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey made the following statement on the floor of the House:

"Mr. Speaker, today, I submit to the RECORD documents that reveal deceptive practices used by the abortion lobby. It is critical that both the American and foreign public are made aware of these documents because they shed new light on the schemes of those who want to promote abortion here and abroad. It is especially important that policy makers know, and more fully understand, the deceptive practices being employed by the abortion lobby. These documents are from recent Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) strategy sessions where, according to a quote from a related interview session, one of CRR’s Trustees said, "We have to fight harder, be a little dirtier." These documents are important for the public to see because they expose the wolf donning sheep’s clothing in an attempt to sanitize violence against children. These papers reveal a Trojan Horse of deceit. They show a plan to "be a little dirtier." In their own words, these documents demonstrate how abortion promotion groups are planning to push abortion here and abroad, not by direct argument, but by twisting words and definitions. In discussing legal strategies to legalize abortion internationally they go as far as to say, "...there is a stealth quality to the work: we are achieving incremental recognition of values without a huge amount of scrutiny from the opposition. These lower profile victories will gradually put us in a strong position to assert a broad consensus around our assertions." People should know about this stealth campaign, and that is why I submit these documents unedited and for public review."


Staff lawyers in the International Legal Program, (ILP) have met three times with Nancy Northup, Nancy Raybin and Elizabeth Lowell (September 3, September 23, and October 16) to discuss our strategic direction. In the periods between those meetings, ILP staff met and worked on the memos attached hereto, as well as two other working memos. We have stepped back and considered the types of strategic legal work the ILP has worked on to date, examining in particular how we evaluate or measure our effectiveness. We reflected on our key accomplishments, and the constant challenge of being in far higher demand than we have resources. This led us to discuss and further develop the ILP's "theory of change" (see Memo 2).

What is our overarching programmatic objective and what should that mean in terms of hard choices on how to focus our work in the next 3‑5 years? We have made some solid progress in answering that question, as outlined below:

The ILP's overarching goal is to ensure that governments worldwide guarantee reproductive rights out of an understanding that they are legally bound to do so.

We see two principal prerequisites for achieving this goal:

1. Strengthening international reproductive rights norms

Norms refer to legal standards. The strongest existing international legal norms relevant to reproductive rights are found in multilateral human rights treaties. Based on our view of what reproductive rights should mean for humankind, the existing human rights treaties are not perfect. For example, at least four substantive areas of reproductive rights illustrate the limits of international reproductive rights norms in protecting women: (a) abortion; (b) adolescent's access to reproductive health care; (c) HIV/AIDS; and (d) child marriage. One strategic goal could be to work for the adoption of a new multilateral treaty (or addendum to an existing treaty) protecting reproductive rights. The other principal option is to develop "soft norms" or jurisprudence (decisions or interpretations) to guide states' compliance with binding norms. Turning back to the four substantive areas noted above, in all four cases, it is possible to secure favorable interpretations. Indeed, the Center has begun to do so. (For an in‑depth discussion of this, see Memo 1).

In theory, existing international norms are broad enough to be interpreted so as to provide women with adequate legal protections. Therefore, we are in agreement on the need to work in a systematic way on strengthening interpretations and applications of the existing norms. If, at the end of 2007, we determine that the existing norms are proving inadequate (as evidenced by the interpretations we seek), then we would reconsider whether to undertake a concerted effort to secure a new international treaty or addendum to address this gap. We would supplement our own conclusions by convening a conference or expert group to consider whether it would be strategic to pursue such an effort.

2. Consistent and effective action on the part of civil society and the international community to enforce these norms

This action follows from the premise that the best way to test existing international reproductive rights norms is to make governments accountable for them. In other words, to work for their enforcement or implementation. We would seek to do this by: (a) developing activities aimed at enforcement of international protections of reproductive rights in regional and international fora; and (b) working for the adoption and implementation of appropriate national‑level norms. The regional and international fora with a quasi‑judicial character arguably offer the most promising venues for securing justice and interpretations that actually change governments' behavior. To date, we have used the Inter‑American Commission on Human Rights (three cases, one pending) and the UN Human Rights Committee (which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) (one case pending). We believe that seeking favorable interpretations from the quasi judicial mechanisms of the European human rights system, the African system, and other UN individual complaint mechanisms will be particularly important in the next 3‑5 years.

Ultimately, underlying the goal of strengthening international norms and enforcement is that of ensuring that appropriate legal norms are in place at the national level so as to improve women's health and lives. Working on the above prerequisites can help bring about national‑level normative changes (since one key way for governments to comply with international norms is to improve national norms). But these processes are not linear and the adoption of appropriate national‑level norms may be feasible first (without advocates' emphasis on governments' obligation to apply international norms). Such new national‑level norms can, in turn, influence and strengthen international standards. Our goal above is reached only when governments in fact guarantee women's reproductive rights; first by adopting appropriate laws and policies, and, second, by adequately implementing them.

We have begun the process of considering what the above theory of change means for our work: It will mean concentrating on securing strong interpretations the strength of international reproductive rights norms. But the work suggested by the discussion above is still greater than our resources. We must think in terms of working in a concerted way on certain reproductive rights issues; in a smaller number of focus countries; and on honing our ability to provide cutting edge input on relevant international and regional norms and on providing a comparative legal perspective. (i.e., analysis of laws and judicial decisions across countries).

Memo #1: International Reproductive Rights Norms: Current Assessment

Our goal is to see governments worldwide guarantee women's reproductive rights out of recognition that they are bound to do so. An essential precondition is the existence of international legal norms that encompass reproductive rights and guarantee them the broadest possible protection. Our task, therefore, is to consider the current content of international law relating to reproductive rights and assess its adequacy for guiding government decision‑making and holding governments accountable for violations of international norms.

This memo provides an overview of the sources of international law that may be invoked to protect reproductive rights, examining both binding treaty provisions (hard norms) and the many interpretative and nonbinding statements that contribute to an understanding of reproductive rights (soft norms). It examines four substantive areas that illustrate the limits of international law in protecting reproductive rights: (a) abortion, (b) adolescents' access to reproductive health care, (c) HIV/AIDS, and (d) child marriage. The memo then considers whether, given existing support for reproductive rights in international law, reproductive rights activists should seek new protective norms or whether our efforts would be better spent seeking stronger mechanisms for enforcement of existing norms. Assuming that our goal is to pursue the development of international norms, there are several approaches we could take:

  • Develop a jurisprudence of existing norms that guides states' compliance with binding norms;
  • Strategically work toward developing customary norms; and
  • Work to create another binding instrument, such as an international treaty or a protocol to an existing treaty.

I. The Foundations of Reproductive Rights in International Law

By way of introduction, international human rights law is grounded in both "hard" and "soft" norms. Legally binding or "hard" norms are norms codified in binding treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). As a result of the hard‑fought efforts of human rights activists, hard norms have gradually been extended to more and more of the human family, including ethnic and racial minorities, women, children, and refugees and internally displaced people.


  1. Congressional Record, "Extensions of Remarks Submitted by Congressman Christopher R. Smith (R‑NJ),” December 8, 2003, pages E2535 to E2547.