Reproductive rights are legal rights and freedoms relating to reproduction and reproductive health. The World Health Organization defines reproductive rights as follows:

Reproductive 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. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

Women’s reproductive rights may include some or all of the following: the right to legal and safe abortion; the right to birth control; freedom from coerced sterilization and contraception; the right to access good-quality reproductive healthcare; and the right to education and access in order to make free and informed reproductive choices. Reproductive rights may also include the right to receive education about sexually transmitted infections and other aspects of sexuality, and protection from practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM).

Historically, the reproductive rights movement in the U.S. has seen many controversies due to the moral, ethical, and religious undertones of birth control, abortion, and family planning. Today, the subject of reproductive rights continues to be an emotionally and politically charged issue, especially in light of new technologies and recent laws.

What are reproductive rights? Read on to learn more about the scope of these rights and their basis in law.

Where do Reproductive Rights Come From?

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly mention a right to reproduce, however, the Supreme Court has recognized it as a personal right that is deemed “fundamental” and which extends to procreation (Skinner v. Oklahoma), contraception (Eisenstadt v. Baird), family relationships (Prince v. Massachusetts) and child rearing (Pierce v. Society of Sisters).

Moreover, a person’s right to privacy is expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and was the subject of the precedent setting case of Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Do Men Have Reproductive Rights?

The question whether men have reproductive rights is a hotly debated topic in the U.S. While reproductive rights have been legally recognized as a woman’s right – especially in matters involving abortion, adoption, and procreation – men’s reproductive rights have been less certain.

Even still, organizations such as the national Center for Men (NCM) have claimed men’s reproductive rights on issues such as false paternity, adoption, abortion choices, and rights over frozen embryos, for example.

In a case known as “Roe v. Wade for Men,” the Court rejected a biological father’s claim that he had the right to reject financial obligations of an unwanted baby under the Equal Protection Clause. (The woman he had sexual intercourse with claimed she was unable to get pregnant).

All in all, the Court has not ruled a definitive answer to support a broad allegation of such rights for men. Constitutionally, laws must only guarantee that men and women are treated the same if they are “similarly situated” – which they are not in matters of reproduction.

What are the Reproductive Rights of Minors?

While women, including those under 18, are entitled to make reproductive decisions concerning their reproductive health (including abortion), state laws such as parental notification and consent requirements have restricted their rights and placed burdens on abortion access. As such, many professional organizations concerned with minor’s health rights have opposed these and other laws restricting minor’s reproductive freedoms.

Abortion: What is Pro-life vs. Pro-choice?

Abortion is the single most controversial issue involving reproduction in the United States. The issue turns on whether a woman should have the “right” to terminate a pregnancy that would amount to a living human being if remained untouched.

On the one hand, pro-choice advocates argue that abortion falls within a person’s constitutional right to privacy, believing the choice to terminate an “unborn fetus” lies with the individual and her doctor. On the other hand, pro-life advocates argue that a fetus is a living being at the moment of conception and argues abortion should be criminalized to protect the life of the unborn fetus.

What are Your Reproductive Rights? Get Answers From an Attorney Today

Given the controversies that surround the area of reproductive rights as well as technological changes related to reproduction, it’s likely to continue giving rise to cases before the courts, not to mention differing approaches among the various states. If you have questions about reproductive rights or are already in a case before the court, it’s critical to reach out to a family law attorney in your area who can explain your rights under federal and state law.

Reproductive rights began to develop as a subset of human rights at the United Nation’s 1968 International Conference on Human Rights. The resulting non binding Proclamation of Teheran was the first international document to recognize one of these rights when it stated that: “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.” States, though, have been slow in incorporating these rights in internationally legally binding instruments. Thus, while some of these rights have already been recognized in hard law, that is, in legally binding international human rights instruments, others have been mentioned only in non binding recommendations and, therefore, have at best the status of soft law in international law, while a further group is yet to be accepted by the international community and therefore remains at the level of advocacy.

Issues related to reproductive rights are some of the most vigorously contested rights’ issues worldwide, regardless of the population’s socioeconomic level, religion or culture.

The issue of reproductive rights is frequently presented as being of vital importance in discussions and articles by population concern organizations such as Population Matters.

ReProductive rights are a subset of sexual and reproductive health and rights.


Proclamation of Teheran

In 1945, the United Nations Charter included the obligation “to promote… universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination as to race, sex, language, or religion”. However, the Charter did not define these rights. Three years later, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first international legal document to delineate human rights; the UDHR does not mention reproductive rights. Reproductive rights began to appear as a subset of human rights in the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran, which states: “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children”.

This right was affirmed by the UN General Assembly in the 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development which states “The family as a basic unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children and youth, should be assisted and protected so that it may fully assume its responsibilities within the community. Parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children. The 1975 UN International Women’s Year Conference echoed the Proclamation of Teheran.

Cairo Programme of Action

The twenty-year “Cairo Programme of Action” was adopted in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. The non binding Programme of Action asserted that governments have a responsibility to meet individuals’ reproductive needs, rather than demographic targets. It recommended that family planning services be provided in the context of other reproductive health services, including services for healthy and safe childbirth, care for sexually transmitted infections, and post-abortion care. The ICPD also addressed issues such as violence against women, sex trafficking, and adolescent health. The Cairo Program is the first international policy document to define reproductive health, stating:

Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are the right of men and women to be informed and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning of their choice, as well as other methods for regulation of fertility which are not against the law, and the right of access to appropriate health-care services that will enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth and provide couples with the best chance of having a healthy infant.

Unlike previous population conferences, a wide range of interests from grassroots to government level were represented in Cairo. 179 nations attended the ICPD and overall eleven thousand representatives from governments, NGOs, international agencies and citizen activists participated. The ICPD did not address the far-reaching implications of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1999, recommendations at the ICPD+5 were expanded to include commitment to AIDS education, research, and prevention of mother-to-child transmission, as well as to the development of vaccines and microbicides.

The Cairo Programme of Action was adopted by 184 UN member states. Nevertheless, many Latin American and Islamic states made formal reservations to the programme, in particular, to its concept of reproductive rights and sexual freedom, to its treatment of abortion, and to its potential incompatibility with Islamic law.

Beijing Platform

The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in its non-binding Declaration and Platform for Action, supported the Cairo Programme’s definition of reproductive health, but established a broader context of reproductive rights:

The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences.

The Beijing Platform demarcated twelve interrelated critical areas of the human rights of women that require advocacy. The Platform framed women’s reproductive rights as “indivisible, universal and inalienable human rights.”

The Yogyakarta Principles

The Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, proposed by a group of experts in November 2006 but not yet incorporated by States in international law, declares in its Preamble that “the international community has recognized the rights of persons to decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.” In relation to reproductive health, Principle 9 on “The Right to Treatment with Humanity while in Detention” requires that “States shall provide adequate access to medical care and counseling appropriate to the needs of those in custody, recognizing any particular needs of persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, including with regard to reproductive health, access to HIV/AIDS information and therapy and access to hormonal or other therapy as well as to gender-reassignment treatments where desired.” Nonetheless, African, Caribbean and Islamic Countries, as well as the Russian Federation, have objected to the use of these principles as Human Rights standards.


The first legal textbook on reproductive rights law, Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice by Melissa Murray and Kristin Luker, was published in 2015 by Foundation Press.