The fundamental, core value in human rights is non-discrimination. Human rights can be used to resolve controversies, particularly in political, cultural and religious areas of contention. This is absolutely not neutral ground – very many of the controversies in the global health arena involve the very issues of human rights.
Human rights are particularly relevant in terms of the great social disparities in reproductive health (15). «The highest attainable standard of health» is a human right according to Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is dual in nature – it includes the right to health services, but it also encompasses the underlying conditions that promote or harm health (16). Both aspects are particularly relevant for reproductive health.
Women experiencing life-threatening complications in conjunction with deliveries and unsafe abortions may need emergency medical services with a high degree of technology and skills. Therefore pregnancy related care must be given priority within health services; services that are often under strong pressure. The underlying health determinants are crucial for reproductive health. The economic status and the educational level of a woman or girl are decisive in terms of whether she has control over her own sexuality, whether she can choose to use contraceptives, protect herself against sexually transmitted infections, whether she is able to receive qualified help in connection with pregnancy, delivery or abortion, and whether she can get help for infertility (13). Young girls are particularly vulnerable.
All countries that have ratified a convention must regularly report to the treaty body as to how the incumbent obligations are being followed up. A number of conventions have proved to be relevant for reproductive health, and on countless occasions countries have received feedback from the treaty body enjoining them to change legislation and practices in order to offer family planning services, skilled care during pregnancy and abortion care (15).
Regional human rights conventions have courts of law, and verdicts from these have a normative impact, in addition to sanctions implemented against states that breach their human rights obligations. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, has ruled that the Polish government had to pay compensatory damages to a woman who was unable to have an abortion performed and developed serious eye complications, a condition that her doctor predicted would occur. Another woman who had been denied genetic testing and abortion was also awarded indemnification (17).