Although the foetus has no right to life, its interests are adequately protected by English law.

The right to life is a moral principle that is based upon the premise that all individuals have a right not to be killed by another human being. This concept that is central to the debates surrounding abortion since it is often contested whether unborn children should also have the right to life. Those in favour of abortion often take the view that a foetus is not sufficiently human to be capable of acquiring a right to life, whilst those in opposition believe that a foetus is human and that its right to life should therefore be protected. There is currently no direct right to life that is provided to a foetus, yet the law in the UK does make some attempt to protect its interests. This essay will focus on the interests that are provided to foetus’ in order to consider whether adequate protection is in place. In doing so, it will be examined whether every woman should have a right to abortion on demand or whether the interests of the foetus should be given due consideration. Accordingly, it will be shown that because there are arguments for and against the interests of the foetus, it is necessary for the law to strike a balance between the two competing interests. This does appear to have been achieved to a certain degree since the interests of the mother are being preserved, whilst also providing some protection to the foetus.
The right to life

The right to life is provided to all individuals under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) 1951, as incorporated by the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998. Whether or not a foetus has a right to life, however, is a highly contested topic because although the foetus does not have a right to life per se, it appears as though its interests are still being protected by the law to a certain extent.[1] On the one hand, it is believed that all women should have the right to do as they wish with their own bodies and that they should therefore have a right to abortion, yet on the other it is believed that the interests of a foetus should be provided with adequate protection.[2] The law in England does seem to have attempted to strike a balance between these two competing interests by permitting abortion, whilst at the same time imposing some restrictions. Under English law (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990) abortion is permitted until the 24th week of a pregnancy. Whilst this provides women with the right to choose what to do with their own bodies, it prevents them from having abortions in the later stages of pregnancy. Because abortion is not legally available at the request of the woman, it has been argued by the Abortion Rights Campaign that; “women’s access to abortion can be and is still threatened.”[3] This is because, once a woman has decided that she wants to have an abortion, she will first be required to persuade two doctors to agree to her decision taking into consideration certain restrictive legal criteria.[4]
Therefore, even though women are capable of having an abortion up until the 24th week of pregnancy, it will be the doctors that make the final decision. And, if they do not agree that the relevant criterion has been satisfied, they will not have to carry out the abortion. This protection is in place to enable the rights of the unborn child to be ascertained in circumstances which would render an abortion unlawful. However, the extent to which such rights are being adequately protected is in fact arguable. Confliction continues to arise in this area because of the difficultly in striking a balance between the rights of the foetus and the rights of the mother. It cannot be said that this balance is currently being achieved as there remains strong opposition of both viewpoints. As pointed out by Mason and Laurie; “attitudes to abortion depend almost entirely on where the holder stands in respect of, on the one hand, the foetal interests in life and, on the other, a woman’s right to control her own body.”[5] Consequently, because the difference in opinions is based upon moral values rather than empirical facts, it is unlikely that such confliction will ever be resolved.[6] In effect, it is unlikely that a solid understanding of the rights in this area will ever be made as the controversy surrounding abortion will continue to exist.
The Foetus’ Right to Life
It is believed that the Abortion Act 1967 violates Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the basis that a child’s rights are not being adequately protected if women are able end their pregnancy if they so wish.[7] Section 1 of the 1967 Act provides that; “a person shall not be guilty of an offence under the law relating to abortion when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner.” In effect, women will not be found guilty of an offence is they decide to have an abortion. Whilst this section does appear to undermine the rights of the foetus, the fact that the termination must be conducted by a registered medical practitioner acting in good faith suggests that some form of protection will still be in place. Furthermore, as put by Herring; “for an abortion to be lawful, the abortion must comply with the requirements of the 1967 Abortion Act.”[8] Section 1 will therefore only apply if certain provisions can also be satisfied. Nevertheless, because abortions are rarely ever refused, it could be said that the provisions under Article 2 are being undermined and that the interests of the foetus are not, in reality, being adequately protected. In view of this, it has therefore been argued by Foster that the 1967 Act is not being used in the way that Parliament intended and that abortion are instead being used as another form of contraception.[9] This demonstrates how abortion is easily accessible to women, which limits the protection that is currently being provided to the foetus. It is likely that doctors will only refuse to conduct an abortion if the woman’s pregnancy has gone past the 24 week threshold or if the circumstances are exceptional.
This signifies how the rights of unborn children are not being preserved, yet it is debatable whether further protections ought to be in place. The right to life is an extremely sensitive subject since it basically provides a right to every human being not be killed.[10] However, much complexity exists when considering the right to life in the context of unborn children. It is difficult to determine whether the mother’s rights should prevail over the rights of the unborn child or vice versa. However, it has been said that the right to life is a human right that is “inviolable and must be protected at all costs.”[11] If this statement was to be taken strictly, every abortion would be considered a violation of one’s human rights and would not be permitted. However, in order to ensure that the rights of the mother are also being protected it is necessary that abortions are permitted in certain circumstances. This would ensure that a balance is attained between the two competing interests by allowing abortions to take place only if it is deemed necessary. Consequently, abortions should not be used carelessly as another form of contraception and this would means that the rights of the mother are being given greater consideration than the rights of the foetus. Abortions should therefore not be as accessible as they currently are and should only be permitted in limited situations. It is unclear what extent the interests of the foetus are actually being considered and it seems as though the right to life is being violated by the abortion process and so further protections may need to be provided to the foetus so that the rights of unborn children are given the same considerations as the mother.
At present, it appears as though the rights of the mother prevail over the rights of the foetus, despite the restrictions that are in place. In order to ensure that the foetus right to life is being protected, it is necessary to impose further restrictions upon the mother’s ability to have an abortion. At present, a mother is capable of aborting a foetus for various reasons including the fact that the child will suffer from a disability. Many people do not agree that this should be a reason to end the life of a foetus, though it is legal in the UK for a woman to abort a baby on grounds of disability up to birth. As a result of this many parents opt for an abortion if pre-natal screening reveals that their baby is suffering from a disability. Moreover, it has also been suggested that the parents are even put under pressure to do so.”[12] The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children strongly disagrees with this approach and believes that; “a person with a disability has the right to life along with every other member of society: aborting a baby because he or she has, or even might have, a disability, is the ultimate form of discrimination.”[13] It cannot be said that the foetus’ right to life is being upheld as a result of this since they can be terminated at any point if they are found to have a disability. Not only does this undermined their right to life but it also discriminates against them on the grounds of their disability. As such, the provisions under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 are too not being complied with. In Vo v France,[14] however, it was made clear that Article 2 of the Convention is “silent as to the temporal limitations of the right to life, and in particular does not define ‘everyone’ whose life is protected by the Convention.”
Effectively, it is clear that because Article 2 does not provide a definition as to who shall be protected, it is likely that the rights of the foetus will continue to be restricted. Jackson does not believe that the moral status of the foetus should be sufficiently wide enough to make abortion unlawful,[15] however, and it seems as though the European Court of Justice is also reluctant as identified in Open Door and Dublin Well Woman v Ireland.[16] Furthermore, in the case of X v United Kingdom[17] the ECJ also stated that the right to life would be subject to an implied limitation in order to respect the mother’s life even if this was at the expense of the foetus’ right to life under Article 2. Furthermore, it was also expressed in Paton v United Kingdom[18] that; “the life of the foetus is intimately connected with, and cannot be regarded in isolation from, the life of the pregnant woman.” This limited the rights of the foetus even further as it was demonstrated that the right to life under Article 2 was not available even though the abortion was not considered necessary to protect the life of the mother. This was also identified in H v Norway,[19] which illustrates that even if an abortion occurred as a result of the mother’s choice and there lacked any specific reason for terminating the pregnancy, Article 2 will still not be capable of providing protection to a foetus if this is at the expense of the mothers rights. This seems to indicate that unborn children are not actually provided with any rights despite the fact that Article 2 initially seemed to protect such interests. The termination of a pregnancy will continue to be a morally and ethically complex issue, particularly if the reason for aborting relates to a foetal abnormality.[20] It has been pointed out that a clear legal framework is needed because of the complexities that exist in this area, though it was noted that this continues to prove extremely difficult to create.[21]
The Rights of the Mother
Whilst it is believed by many that the rights of the foetus should be given due consideration, it is equally argued that the rights of women should be considered foremost when deciding whether an abortion is lawful or not. This was shown in Roe v Wade[22] where it was made clear by the Court that a person has a right to abortion unless the foetus has become viable. This means that the foetus does not become a human being until it is capable of living outside the mother’s womb without any artificial aid.[23] Although this decision was made by a Court in the US, it sparked a significant amount of debate. It was argued on the one hand that a foetus becomes a child whilst it is still in the womb and that the decision whether or not to allow abortion to take effect should not be based upon whether a foetus has the capacity to enjoy life as a person.[24] It has been said that the decision in this case effectively allows an abortion on demand to take place.[25] On the other hand, however, it has been expressed by Loveland that; “the judgment neither produced abortion on demand nor allowed states to prevent late-stage terminations.”[26] The decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey[27] imposed further limitations on the rights of the mother when it was found that the viability period would be reduced from 24 weeks to 22 weeks. It is questionable whether this was sufficient in ensuring that the right to life of the foetus under Article 2 was being provided with greater protection since the rights of the mother will continue to prevail in the majority of situations.
It could be said that it is necessary for the mother’s rights to be ascertained over the rights of the unborn child because women should be regarded as individuals as opposed to being merely containers for the foetus. In accordance with this, greater consideration should be given to the rights of the mother, though some protections should also be available for the unborn.[28] Arguably, it is important that both the rights of the mother and the unborn child shall be considered, though much more weight ought to be given to the mother’s interests as she is already considered a viable person. It has been contended by Herring that; “women who want an abortion should not be required to continue with the pregnancy.”[29] Therefore, although Article 2 expressly states that the right to life is to apply to “everyone”, the extent to which this applies to the foetus is arguable in view of the confliction that exists between the rights of the mother and the rights of the foetus. In A-G’s Reference (No 3 of 119)[30] it was noted that a foetus is not regarded as a “person” and will therefore not be directly protected by Article 2 of the Convention. It was further added that the only right to life in which a foetus has is implicitly limited by the mother’s rights and interests. This suggests that a foetus will only be provided with the right to life indirectly from the mothers right under Article 2. It is unclear whether this completely undermines a foetus’ right to life, though it seems likely given that that Article 2 will not be violated if a pregnancy is terminated. The Courts have expressed great reluctance to elucidate on this matter, by assessing whether Article 2 will provide rights to the foetus or not, because of the existing moral and ethical considerations.
As a result, great complexity continues to exist within this area of the law and unless Article 2 is more clearly defined, complexity will continue to ensue. Yet, because of the moral issues that are prevalent throughout, it seems as though a single approach would not be workable. Therefore, the decision as to whether an abortion should be permitted or not will continue to be decided on a case by case basis. As such, it will depend primarily upon the circumstances of each case. This allows a certain degree of flexibility to exist which is necessary given that each case will differ from the next. However, it is likely that the rights of the mother will continue to be favoured over the rights of the unborn child. Nevertheless, because of the politics that surround abortion, the European Court of Human Rights has been said to be “wary of making a general rule concerning the legal status of the foetus, preferring to leave this question to the margin of appreciation.”[31] It cannot be said that this is acceptable given the ambiguity that arises within this area. But because there is no right or wrong answer as to whether the rights of the mother should prevail over the rights of the foetus the legal status of the foetus could not be defined by the Courts without attracting opposition. It could be said that the UK has made some attempt to identify the rights of the foetus despite the fact that no right to life exists, yet the extent to which these interests are being protected will be likely to remain debated. When the case of Vo was brought before the ECHR they appeared to focus more on the question as to when life begins as well the nature and characteristics of the foetus, as opposed to focusing on the relationship between the mother and her potential child and the others right to reproductive freedom and autonomy.[32]
Therefore, the approach taken by the ECHR should have been based upon the recognition of foetal interests as well as the loss of a mother’s relationship. Whilst this would not have addressed all of the difficulties that arise in this area, it would have provided some recognition as to the interests of the foetus. Much more needs to be done if foetal interests are to be provided with greater protected, whilst at the same time maintaining the rights of the mother. The rights of the mother appear to be protected in favour of the rights of the foetus, yet it has been said that this ensure the human dignity of the mother is being preserved.[33] This is because if a mother was not provided with the choice to terminate a pregnancy, it is likely that their human dignity would be violated. Whilst this this may be at the expense of the rights enshrined in Article 2, it is deemed necessary in protecting the mother’s interests.
Balancing the Rights
It is doubtful that the rights of the foetus and the rights of the mother are being balanced since the rights of the foetus continue to be undermined. Whilst there are some protections in place to preserve the interests of the foetus, these do not appear sufficient and so it seems as though tighter restrictions ought to be implemented to ensure that abortion is not easily accessible. This would allow for a more acceptable balance to be attained because at present it seems to be largely one-sided. If abortion was only permitted in extreme circumstances, it would not be capable of being used as another form of contraception and the interests of the foetus would be better recognised. On the contrary, it is argued that further limitations would limit the mothers freedom to choose and their own rights would be undermined if Article 2 was to provide express rights to unborn children. Therefore, whilst abortion should still be permitted, limitations should be imposed so that the rights of the foetus are given better protection. It is unclear whether judges should be left to make a decision on whether an abortion is lawful or not since opinions will differ significantly on this subject. Thus, it cannot be said that judges should be left to decide upon moral issues. Whilst one judge may agree with abortion, another judge may not as individuals have different perceptions on what is and what is not morally right. This is why the courts have been quite reluctant to use a single approach when deciding upon the interests of a foetus and it seems that the matter is better left undefined.
This was identified by Sandel when it was argued that there are differences of opinions as to whether abortion is morally reprehensible and therefore worthy of prohibition, whilst many avoid passing judgment on the morality of these practices.[34] The ECHR appears to have adopted the latter approach, by failing to provide a decision on the legal status of foetus’. This lack of definition may actually be in the interests of the foetus since rights are capable of being provided that may not have been had a definition been in place. The determination as to whether abortion should be a mother’s choice or not will be capable of being assessed differently in all cases. This is necessary given the diverging opinions that exist since it will continue to be argued by many that Article 2 should provide a right to “anyone” including unborn children, whilst others will continue to be of the view that the decision should be left with the freedom of choice as protected under Article 13 of the Convention. The current practice that is being adopted in striking a balance between the two competing interests does appear to be the most plausible approach to take since each case will be determined by its facts. This could, however, lead to judicial activism occurring, which appears to have happened in the Roe case above which was described by Thielen as “an incredible reach of judicial activism.”[35] Judicial activism occurs when a ruling is said to be based upon political or personal considerations as opposed to being based upon existing law.[36] Therefore, if when Courts are provided with the ability to decide upon matters concerning abortion, judicial activism is likely to emerge which undermines social policy and, in some instances, human rights. Still, as put forward by Ewing and Gearty; “English judges have shown a powerful engagement with the rights of the unborn in the past,”[37] yet whether violations of one’s human rights are arising out of this is likely and it seems quite difficult for a balance to be achieved between the rights of the unborn with the rights of the mother.
This area is extremely controversial and because of this it is difficult for legislators as well as the judiciary to make a decision as to whether a foetus does have rights. Many people are of the view that every woman should have the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, yet not all agree with this. Instead, it is argued that women are capable of using abortion as a form of contraception because of how easily accessible it is. Whilst there are some restraints in place to prevent this from happening, such as the requirement to obtain permission from two doctors, it cannot be said that such measures are effective. This is because it is highly unlikely that an abortion would be refused unless the stages of pregnancy have gone past the 24 week threshold. Furthermore, because women are permitted to have an abortion past this stage if the unborn child is suffering from a disability, the rights of the foetus are being undermined even further. It is therefore questionable whether the current law is effective in preserving the interests of the foetus since the law has not made it difficult for abortions to be performed. Therefore, it could be said that further restrictions are needed so as to balance the rights of the mother with the rights of the unborn child. Conversely, because there is a limit on the number of weeks a person can abort a foetus, it could be said that their interests are being adequately protected to a certain degree. Whether this is sufficient, however, is likely to remain a contestable subject for many years to come as there will continue to be differing opinions as to whether abortion should be so easily available. In effect, there are both strengths and weaknesses for right to abortion, yet it is questionable whether the strengths do in fact outweigh the weaknesses.
A-G’s Reference (No 3 of 119) [1998] AC 245
H v Norway (1992) 73 D & R 155
Open Door and Dublin Well Woman v Ireland (1992) 14 EHRR 244
Paton v United Kingdom (1980) 3 EHRR 408
Planned Parenthood v Casey (1992) 404 U.S. 833
Roe v Wade (1973) 410 U.S. 113
Vo v France Judgement of 8 July 2004 40 EHRR 12
X v United Kingdom (1980) 19 D & R 244
Abortion Act 1967
Disability Discrimination Act 1995
European Convention of Human Rights 1951
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990
Human Rights Act 1998
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