Abortion in the Americas: Article 4(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since I arrived in Costa Rica to start my internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights! Of course, when I think back on all of the experiences I’ve had in the past 6 weeks, professionally and personally, I can see that I have been busy during this short time.

My idea for this post came as I was doing research for my last blog post on Canada’s place in the Inter-American Human Rights System. In my reading, I learned that Article 4(1) is frequently cited as a potential obstacle for Canada’s ratification of the American Convention of Human Rights. The article reads:

Not just work: I got to go hiking in Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the province of Guanacaste one weekend.

Article 4: Right to Life

  1. Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.[i] (emphasis mine)

… What??? I could not believe my eyes. In my opinion, the right to end a pregnancy (whether potentially dangerous, unviable, or simply unwanted) is intrinsically linked to bodily autonomy and gender equality. How could an international human rights instrument include such a clause that undermined gender equality? I was flabbergasted.

Article 4(1) of the American Convention reminded me of the 8th amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which was repealed in 2018. The amendment read:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.[ii]

Savita Halappanavar, Irish Times

As a feminist, and as an Irish woman, I have had strong feelings about abortion since I was an undergraduate student. I was living in Ireland in the fall of 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis in an Irish hospital after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy. Even though it was a much-wanted pregnancy, she was having a miscarriage that quickly became a danger to her life.[iii] Her doctors refused to accelerate the end of her pregnancy because the fetus still “had a heartbeat,” while hospital staff reportedly told her husband that Ireland was a “Catholic country.”[iv] Protests ensued. Feminists replied that “she had a heartbeat too.”[v]

At the time, Ireland had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.[vi] The public outrage at the injustice done to Ms. Halappanavar and the tireless effort of feminist groups eventually led to a successful 2018 referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and legalize the procedure in the Republic, now allowed regardless of reason until 12 weeks gestation. The Irish Times wrote after the vote that “[m]any point to a young woman called Savita Halappanavar as the reason they became revolutionaries.”[vii] I guess I could say the same of myself.

“ABORTO YA” (“ABORTION NOW”) graffiti on my way to work in San José, painted in the same green colour used by the Argentinean movement.

Abortion has long been a controversial issue in Latin America, home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The Center for Reproductive Rights, an NGO that uses law to advance reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world, writes:

Latin America and the Caribbean are home to some of the most restrictive and punitive abortion laws in the world. In El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Suriname, abortion is completely illegal—with no exception. In El Salvador, the government has taken this even further and interpreted the law such that women are imprisoned for obstetric emergencies out of suspicion of their having had an abortion. In Guatemala, abortion is criminalized in all instances except when a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, which is typically interpreted to mean immediate and imminent death.[viii]

In recent weeks abortion has been a hot topic in Latin America from Guatemala to Argentina. On May 29th, four women from Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Guatemala filed complaints against their respective governments before the UN Human Rights Committee, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights.[ix] The women were all under 14 years old when they became pregnant as a result of rape perpetrated by older men. They argue that their lives were put at risk when their governments denied them abortions.

Activists hold green handkerchiefs, which symbolizes the abortion rights movement, during a rally to legalize abortion, outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

There is more optimism happening in Argentina, where on May 28th, when an attempt to legalize abortion was introduced to Argentina’s congress for the 8th time. Last year, a similar bill passed the House of Deputies but was narrowly defeated in the Senate.[x] One of the loudest opponents of the effort to legalize abortion is the Catholic Church: on May 25th Pope Francis, who is Argentinean, compared abortion to “hiring a hitman.”[xi]

An Argentinean colleague at the Court, named Nina, told me that she wished she could be home to participate in the demonstrations in favour of the bill, which have come to be symbolized by the pañuelo verde (green hankerchief) that pro-choice protesters wear. Currently, abortions are available in Argentina only in cases of rape and when the mother’s health is at risk.[xii] However, in practice, many women are not able to access the care they are allowed by law. In February of 2019, a 12-year-old girl was forced to deliver a baby by cesarean section after hospital and government administrators blocked her request for an abortion. She had become pregnant after being raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend.[xiii] A similar abortion law also failed to save Savita Halappanavar in Ireland.

My work colleague, Nina, with her symbolic pañuelo verde that she wears to pro-abortion demonstrations in her home city of Córdoba, Argentina.

Given this context of strict abortion laws, it is perhaps unsurprising that there would have been pressure to include a provision such as Article 4(1) in the drafting of the American Convention. In the case Baby Boy vs United States of America (1981), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights talked about the origins of the clause.[xiv] The American Convention was preceded by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Canada accepted the American Declaration when it became a full member of the OAS in 1990, although it didn’t participate in the drafting of either document. Article 1 of the Declaration made no mention of conception. According to the Commission, the preliminary draft of this article protected life from the moment of conception, but was dropped in the final version due to the objection of states that permitted abortion in some circumstances (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela at the time).[xv]

According to the Commission in Baby Boy, the first draft of the American Convention sought to protect life from the moment of conception. However, the words “and, in general” were added by majority vote of the Council of the OAS to accommodate states that permitted abortion in cases such as “to save the mother’s life, and in the case of rape.”[xvi] Some states, such as Ecuador, objected to this change.[xvii] Given this history, the Commission firmly established that the right to life from the moment of conception is not absolute.[xviii]

After Baby Boy, there was no jurisprudence on the subject of the rights of embryos under Article 4(1) until the 2012 case Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, which related to the legality of in vitro fertilization.[xix] In Artavia Murillo, the Inter-American Court said that the addition of the words “and, in general” means that the right to life from conception is not absolute, but rather is gradual and evolves along with the development of the fetus.[xx] The Court also concluded that it was impossible to consider an embryo to have full legal personhood, and noted that no other international human rights instruments grant personhood to the unborn.[xxi]

Nevertheless, Article 4(1) has been pointed out as a potential obstacle to Canada’s adherence to the convention. In 2003, there was a Senate Commission on Canada’s involvement in the Inter-American system. The Commission said:

Even though article 4(1) does not impose an obligation to prohibit abortions, it may impose an obligation to regulate them. However, at the moment, there is no Canadian legislation or regulation with respect to abortions. The Supreme Court of Canada found in R v Morgentaler that the procedure created under section 251 of the Criminal Code for obtaining an abortion was incompatible with a woman’s right to the security of her person. No new provision has been adopted to replace s. 251.[xxii]

Despite this concern (and others), the Senate ultimately recommended that Canada join the system.[xxiii] Sixteen years later, Canada’s law on abortion has not changed, and therefore, in my opinion, the concerns of the Senate Committee remain valid.

This photo with the flag of the Organization of American States was taken in the room where the judges of the Court deliberate important cases such as Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica.

Even with the limits on Article 4(1) circumscribed by the Court, I do not think that the right to life as set out in the American Convention is compatible with Canadian law on the subject of abortion. Bernard Duhaime writes in “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR” that the interpretations of the Article in Baby Boy and Artavia Murillo bring the Article in line with obligations of other human rights treaties ratified by Canada, and would not pose an obstacle for Canada’s acceptance of the Convention.[xxiv] I respectfully disagree. It is clear from the jurisprudence that Article 4(1) allows abortion in some circumstances, such as in the case of rape and to save the life of the mother. However, the jurisprudence is silent on whether the Article permits the termination of a pregnancy that is simply unwanted, as is currently allowed in Canada. Duhaime does acknowledge that “any remaining concern could also be addressed by entering a reservation or an interpretative declaration as to specific aspects of the American Convention, when adhering to it.”[xxv] On this point I agree: any adherence by Canada would require such a reservation, which would relieve Canada of the obligation of Article 4(1).

In conclusion, the lack of protection of a women’s right to end a pregnancy is a pressing issue in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, and, increasingly the United States as well (but that’s another issue[xxvi]). The American Convention, unfortunately, does little to protect women’s reproductive rights due to the protection of a fetus’s right to life in Article 4(1). Clearly, the Inter-American Human Rights System allows abortion in at least some circumstances, but it is not clear whether a legal framework such as Canada’s would be allowed. Consequently, if Canada were to ratify the American Convention, it would be essential to include a reservation with regards to Article 4(1). The complex topic of abortion in the Americas, therefore, should not necessarily prevent Canada from playing a bigger role in the Inter-American Human Rights System.

—————

[i] American Convention on Human Rights, available at: https://www.cidh.oas.org/basicos/english/basic3.american%20convention.htm

[ii] Constitution of Ireland, available at: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d5bd8c-constitution-of-ireland/?referrer=/DOT/eng/Historical_Information/The_Constitution/Constitution_of_Ireland_-_Bunreacht_na_h%C3%83%E2%80%B0ireann.html

[iii] BBC, Woman dies after abortion request “refused” at Galway Hospital, 14 November 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-20321741

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See, for example, Ann Rossiter, “‘She Had A Heartbeat Too’: The Tragic Death of Savita Halappanavar in an Irish Hospital,” 21 Jan 2013, Feministing, http://feministing.com/2013/01/21/she-had-a-heartbeat-too-the-tragic-death-of-savita-halappanavar-in-an-irish-hospital/

[vi] For a comprehensive look at the state of abortion rights in the world, see: Center for Reproductive Rights, “The World’s Abortion Laws 2019,” updated in real time, http://worldabortionlaws.com/

[vii] Kitty Holland, “How the death of Savita Halappanavar revolutionised Ireland,” The Irish Times, 28 May 2018, online: <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/how-the-death-of-savita-halappanavar-revolutionised-ireland-1.3510387>.

[viii] Center for Reproductive Rights, “They Are Girls: Reproductive Rights Violations in Latin America and the Caribbean,” 2019, online: <https://www.reproductiverights.org/document/just-girls-reproductive-rights-violations-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean>.

[ix] The Guardian, Latin America rape survivors who were denied abortions turn to UN, May 29, 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/29/latin-american-survivors-who-were-denied-abortions-turn-to-un>.

[x] BBC, “Argentina abortion: Senate defeats bill after polarising debate,” 9 August 2018, online: <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45125687>.

[xi] Semana, “‘Abortar equivale a contratar un sicario’: Papa Francisco,” 25 May 2019, online: <https://www.semana.com/mundo/articulo/papa-reitera-que-abortar-es-igual-a-contratar-un-sicario/617162>.

[xii] Walter Bianchi, “Argentine activists try again with new bill to legalize abortion,” Reuters, 28 May 2019, online: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-argentina-abortion/argentine-activists-try-again-with-new-bill-to-legalize-abortion-idUSKCN1SY2NO?>.

[xiii] El País, “Obligada a dar a luz por cesárea otra niña argentina que había sido violada y pidió un aborto,” 28 February 2019, online: <https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/02/27/actualidad/1551292176_461936.html>.

[xiv] Baby Boy vs United States of America [1981], Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Res 23/81, Case 2141, online: <http://www.cidh.org/annualrep/80.81eng/USA2141.htm>.

[xv] Ibid., at paras 18-19.

[xvi] Ibid., at para 25.

[xvii] Ibid., at para 29.

[xviii] Ibid., at para 30.

[xix] Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, Decision 28 November 2012 (Preliminary exceptions, merits, reparations and costs), online: <http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_257_ing.pdf>.

[xx] Ibid., at paras 188 and 264.

[xxi] Ibid., at para 223.

[xxii] Senate, Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, “Enhancing Canada’s Role in the OAS: Canadian Adherence to the American Convention on Human Rights (May 2003), online: <https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/Committee/372/huma/rep/rep04may03-e.pdf >, at p. 43.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Bernard Duhaime, “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR,” Revue générale de droit, Vol. 49 (2019), at p. 196.

[xxv] Ibid, at p. 197.

[xxvi] The Guardian, “US abortion policy is ‘extremist hate’ and ‘torture’, says UN commissioner,” 4 June 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jun/04/us-abortion-policy-extremist-hate-torture-un-commissioner-kate-gilmore>.

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