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."

Summary of Strategic Planning through October 31, 2003


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:

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.

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.

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.

Supplementing these binding treaty‑based standards and often contributing to the development of future hard norms are a variety of "soft norms." These norms result from interpretations of human rights treaty committees, rulings of international tribunals, resolutions of inter‑governmental political bodies, agreed conclusions in international conferences and reports of special rapporteurs (sources of soft norms include: the European Court of Human Rights, the CEDAW Committee, provisions from the Platform for Action of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, and reports from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.)

Reproductive rights advocates, including the Center, have found guarantees of women's right to reproductive health and self‑determination in longstanding and hard international norms, relying on such instruments as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Universal Declaration), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) . This approach received international affirmation (in a soft norm) at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in the conference's Program of Action. Paragraph 7.3 of that document states: "[R]eproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights documents."

We and others have grounded reproductive rights in a number of recognized human rights, including: the right to life, liberty, and security; the right to health, reproductive health, and family planning; the right to decide the number and spacing of children; the right to consent to marriage and to equality in marriage; the right to privacy; the right to be free from discrimination on specified grounds; the right to modify traditions or customs that violate women's rights; the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to be free from sexual violence; and the right to enjoy scientific progress and to consent to experimentation. .

Our publications feature legal arguments resting on these broad principles, many of which have been well received by treaty monitoring bodies and other authoritative U.N. bodies. Still, there are some arguments that could be considerably strengthened with legal norms that relate more specifically to reproductive matters. The next section will briefly discuss four areas in which international law provides less protection than desired.

Gaps in Existing Norms


We have been leaders in bringing arguments for a woman's right to choose abortion within the rubric of international human rights. However, there is no binding hard norm that recognizes women's right to terminate a pregnancy. To argue that such a right exists, we have focused on interpretations of three categories of hard norms: the rights to life and health; the right to be free from discrimination; those rights that protect individual decision‑making on private matters.

Bolstered by numerous soft norms, the assertion with widest international acceptance is that a woman's right to be free from unsafe abortion is grounded in her rights to life and health. The right to life has been interpreted to require governments to take action to preserve life. The right to health guarantees the highest attainable level of physical and mental health. Because unsafe abortion is responsible for 78,000 deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of disabilities, criminalization of abortion clearly harms women's life and health . The international community has recognized the dangers of unsafe abortion. Statements to that effect were adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), as well as the recent 5‑year reviews of these conferences.

While this has been an important stride, the global community has fallen short of recognizing a right to independent decision-making in abortion, providing us with relatively few soft norms. We argue that the right to make decisions about one's body is rooted in the right to physical integrity, which has been interpreted to protect against unwanted invasions of one's body. We assert that the right to privacy protects a woman's right to make decisions about her reproductive capacity. We also rely on the right to determine the number and spacing of one's children. Here, the soft norms arguably work against us, particularly given the phrase repeated in both the Cairo and Beijing documents affirming that under no circumstances should abortion be considered a method of family planning .

We have also grounded our arguments in the right to be free from gender discrimination, which is protected in every major human rights instrument. Because restrictive abortion laws deny access to health care that only women need, they constitute discrimination in access to health care. This position is supported somewhat obliquely in a CEDAW general recommendation. In addition, we argue that by denying women the means to control their own fertility, restrictive abortion laws interfere with women's ability to enjoy opportunities in other sectors of society, including educational and professional opportunities. No soft norms affirm this argument.

=====Adolescents ― Access to Reproductive Health Services and Information

The Center has taken a leading role in pressing for protection of adolescents' right to access reproductive and sexual health information and services. In creating a human rights framework for such rights, we use the same hard norms that form the foundation for non‑adolescent women's right to access reproductive health services. However, the challenge is to assert that the hard norms apply to adolescents under age 18. We rely almost exclusively on soft norms to do this since none of the treaties explicitly discuss adolescents' reproductive rights .

Rights Relating to the Right to Reproductive Health
  • The right to health (including family planning services and education);
  • The right to life; and
  • The rights to education and information.

With respect to the first cluster of rights, the hard norms relating to women's right to access reproductive health services and information are well established and accepted. However, there is no hard norm specifically stating that these provisions also protect adolescents' right to access reproductive health services and information. There is one important, and somewhat ambiguous exception. A recent interpretation suggests the provision on the right to health, which asks states parties to develop family planning services and education, applies to children/adolescents.

Rights Relating to Reproductive Decision Making/Autonomy
  • Right to privacy;
  • Right to plan the number and spacing of one's children; and
  • Rights to liberty and security of person.

In issues relating to adolescents' reproductive autonomy and decision‑making, there are even fewer hard norms and it is even more difficult to say that these hard norms apply to adolescents under the age of 18 and their reproductive decision‑making . For example, the Children's Rights Convention (CRR) provisions on the right to privacy are problematic, prohibiting "arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy." The provision is not explicit that the right applies to health services and the use of "unlawful" could imply that only interferences that contravene national law would be prohibited. There are no hard norms on: (1) confidentiality in provision of health services or information; (2) prohibiting parental consent requirements and (3) third party authorization for access to reproductive health services and information.

The Right To Be Free From Discrimination

While there are hard norms prohibiting sex discrimination that apply to girl adolescents, these are problematic since they must be applied to a substantive right (i.e., the right to health) and the substantive reproductive rights of adolescents are not 'hard' (yet!). There are no hard norms on age discrimination that would protect adolescents' ability to exercise their rights to reproductive health, sexual education, or reproductive decision-making. In addition, there are no hard norms prohibiting discrimination based on marital status, which is often an issue with respect to unmarried adolescents' access to reproductive health services and information.

The soft norms support the idea that the hard norms apply to adolescents under 18. They also fill in the substantive gaps in the hard norms with respect to reproductive health services and information as well as adolescents' reproductive autonomy. Two important standards are applied in order to fill in the gaps:

  • The "Evolving Capacity of the Child" standard, which limits parental control to the extent that children take on more autonomy as their capacities grow. (e.g., An adolescent who is sexually active and is taking the initiative to seek out means to protect herself from STIs and unwanted pregnancy is demonstrating a level of maturity to justify access.)
  • The "Best Interest of the Child" standard, which mandates that in the context of health, parental involvement that prevents adolescents from accessing potentially lifesaving information and services is NOT in the child's best interest. Rather, it is in the best interest of adolescents to have access to the means to protect themselves. It is often in the best interest of the child to be granted autonomy in decision‑making.
Soft Norms Relating to the Right to Reproductive Health

The Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs) have explicitly interpreted adolescents' right to health as including the right to access services and information on reproductive health. In addition, they have called for sexual education in the context of the rights to education and information. Both the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Beijing Platform for Action (Beijing PFA) further help to fill in the gaps in this cluster of substantive rights, clearly stating that these rights apply to adolescents.

Soft Norms Relating to the Right to Reproductive Autonomy/Decision‑Making

Soft norms supplement the dearth of hard norms. The TMBs have interpreted adolescents' right to privacy as ensuring a right to confidentiality in reproductive health services as well as the right to access services and information without parental consent.

Soft Norms Relating to the Right to be Free from Discrimination

There are no explicit soft norms on the right to be free from discrimination based on age in the context of adolescents' reproductive rights. There are soft norms relating to the age of marriage, which would impact adolescents' ability to access services since in many countries married adolescents are granted access regardless of their age while unmarried adolescents are effectively denied access. This relates closely to soft norms on discrimination based on marital status. In this regard, the TMB's General Recommendations/Comments and Concluding Observations have explicitly condemned discrimination based on marital status in accessing reproductive health services.



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