Family, Sex, and Reproduction: Emerging Issues in International Law

Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Family, Sex, and Reproduction: Emerging Issues in International Law


This panel was convened at 12:45 p.m., Friday, March 26, by its moderator, Nancy Northrup of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who introduced the panelists: Joanna N. Erdman of the University of Toronto; Kathleen Lahey of Queen's University; Aura Katzive of Wellspring Advisors; and Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School, Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS BY NANCY NORTHRUP *

"Family, Sex, and Reproduction"--these are issues that by their very nature are close to home. Family is synonymous with home; beating children is associated with home; and nothing in our lives is more intimate than our sexuality and sexual relationships. We are not talking here about the International Monetary Fund or the law of the sea. Family, sex, and reproduction were traditionally the domain of law "close to home." Here in the United States they are largely the domain of state regulation. In some African countries they are the domain of customary law. Today on this panel we're talking about emerging developments in international law related to these issues once viewed as quite far from the international stage.

International human rights law is an increasingly powerful tool for those working to advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Human rights advocates draw on binding international treaties that guarantee the right to life, health, bodily integrity, dignity, self-determination, and equality, as well as freedom from discrimination and creel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. National-level courts and regional and international human rights bodies are increasingly applying these standards in the area of sexual and reproductive rights.

These are developments of which the Center for Reproductive Rights has been actively a part. The Center is an international nonprofit organization that uses constitutional and international human rights law to promote women's equality by establishing access to reproductive health care and control over reproductive decisions as fundamental rights that all governments around the world must respect, protect, and fulfill. We have brought groundbreaking cases before national courts, United Nations treaty monitoring bodies, and regional human rights bodies as part of our goal to expand women's ability to participate as equal members of society, and to expand the limiting conceptions of gender roles.

Let me spend just a few minutes highlighting some of these developments. UN treaty-monitoring bodies have expressed concern about women's lack of access to contraception and safe abortion. We have won or settled cases in the Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the right to access abortion in certain circumstances. In one of the Center's cases this year, the Supreme Court of Nepal established the right to public funding for poor women's abortions. In K.L. v. Peru the Human Rights Committee established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) issued its first abortion ruling, finding denial of a therapeutic abortion to be cruel and degrading treatment. (1) There have also been critical developments on sexual rights issues, including cases in UN treaty monitoring bodies, the European Court of Human Rights, and national-level courts removing criminal sodomy laws and requiring non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, child custody, and marriage.

In addition, important progress has been made in seeking to elucidate international human rights to sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2006 a group of international human rights experts met in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to outline a set of principles relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. (2) In July 2009 the New Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexual sex in a ruling that heavily cited international law and the Yogyakarta Principles as part of its reasoning. …

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