Q&A: How International Law Protects Abortion Access in the US
On June 4, 2022, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that ended the constitutional right to abortion in the US. Following the ruling, many states have moved to ban abortion and issue new restrictions on abortion care.
This factsheet answers questions about protections for abortion under international law. Over the last few decades, multiple human rights treaties have been developed that, together, establish reproductive autonomy as a human right.
1. What human rights treaties has the US ratified?
There are nine core international human rights treaties that together establish standards for the protection and promotion of human rights. The US has ratified three: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).
These treaties are binding, and as such they require the US to comply with its international human rights obligations, one of which is ensuring access to abortion. Additionally, the US has signed but not ratified other relevant treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and has an obligation not to defeat those treaties’ object or purpose.
2. Who enforces these treaties? How do they hold the US accountable?
Implementation of the human rights treaties is monitored by treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee (which monitors the ICCPR), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the Committee against Torture. Treaty bodies periodically review States parties for their compliance with their treaty obligations. The treaty bodies undertake a variety of activities, including reviewing States parties reports, issuing concluding observations and recommendations, considering complaints, and conducting inquiries. For example, in August 2022 the CERD’s concluding observations specifically called on the US to take all necessary measures — at the federal and state level — to provide safe, legal, and effective access to abortion in line with its international human rights obligations.