P and S v. Poland: adolescence, vulnerability, and reproductive autonomy

The Strasbourg Observers are delighted to publish this guest post by Johanna Westeson, Regional Director for Europe, Center for Reproductive Rights. The Center for Reproductive Rights represented the applicants in P and S v. Poland before the ECtHR; see the Center’s press release here.

This week, the European Court of Human Rights issued its decision in P and S v. Poland, a case of a Polish teenager who became pregnant as a result of rape and was humiliated, harassed, and manipulated in her quest for a legal abortion. Building on the landmark cases against Poland’s restrictive abortion practice, Tysiąc v. Poland (2007) and R.R. v. Poland (2011) (see blog posts here and here), this judgment further clarifies the Court’s stance that reproductive health services that are legal must also be accessible. It also develops important reasoning on the vulnerability of young rape victims as well as their right to personal autonomy in matters of reproductive choice. The Court establishes that P and S had been subjected to several violations of their rights under Article 8, Article 5, and Article 3. This is a groundbreaking case, particularly in regard to the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents. It opens the door to legal challenges to regimes that restrict young people’s reproductive self-determination, such as parental consent laws and strict procedural requirements to prove rape as a requirement for access to legal abortion. Continue reading

Gender equality and religious freedom in politics; Dutch SGP case declared inadmissible

The ECtHR has brought a turbulent Dutch legal saga to a close. In the highly interesting Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij v. the Netherlands, the Court has declared the complaint by the Dutch political party ‘SGP’ inadmissible. The SGP is, in the words of the Court, “a confessional political party firmly rooted in historical Dutch Reformed Protestantism” (par. 4). The party does not allow women to stand for election, as it believes that God teaches that men and women have different roles in life. It believes that “man is the head of the woman” and “participation of women in both representative and administrative political organs” is “incompatible with woman’s calling” (par. 9). After a prolonged debate and legal struggle in the domestic courts, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that, on the ground of Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (‘CEDAW’), the State is obliged to ensure that political parties allow women to exercise their right to stand for election. The SGP complained to the Strasbourg Court that this ruling of the Supreme Court infringed Articles 9 (right to freedom of religion), Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 11 (right to assembly) of the ECHR.

Frankly, what I expected to find was a terse decision, basically referring to the State’s margin of appreciation. I was wrong. The reasoning is brief, but includes three steps that combine to make this a memorable ruling. I will discuss these steps below. By the way, this case has provoked a lot of controversy in the Netherlands over the past years (most of it is in Dutch, but see this article in the Human Rights Quarterly). With this post, I cannot do justice to the whole debate; I just aim to give you my first impressions of the decision. Continue reading

Court condemns forced sterilization of Roma woman

This post is co-authored by Lourdes Peroni and Alexandra Timmer

The Court has recently ruled in V.C. v. Slovakia, a case brought by a Roma woman who complained that she was sterilized without her informed consent. The judgment is no doubt a landmark decision with crucial implications for women belonging to minority ethnic groups. In this post, we argue the Court’s reasoning is spot on in several respects and outline the reasons why.  

Outline of the judgment

The applicant’s forced sterilization was in violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) and Article 8 (respect for private and family life). The Court condemns the Slovakian government in strong terms. Continue reading

S.H. and Others v Austria: margin of appreciation and IVF

In Austria, it is forbidden to use donated sperm or ova for in vitro fertilization (‘IVF’). Ovum donation is under all circumstances prohibited; sperm donation is only possible when the sperm is directly placed in the womb of a woman (in vivo artificial insemination). Two Austrian couples complained about this regulation; the first couple needs IVF treatment with use of donor sperm and the other couple needs IVF with use of a donor ovum to fulfill their wish for a child of which at least one of them is the genetic parent. In 2010, the First Section held in S.H. and Others v. Austria that the Austrian regulation violated Article 14 in conjunction with Article 8 of the Convention, with a vote of 6-1 regarding the first couple and 5-2 vote regarding the second couple. Stijn and I have both blogged about that Chamber judgment (see here and here).

The Grand Chamber reversed that judgment a few days ago. With a vote of 13 to 4, the Grand Chamber concludes that the restrictive Austrian assisted reproduction regulation is not contrary to the Convention. Quite frankly, I have difficulties writing this post. The case raises very complex issues, situated as it is within a highly contentious debate about the way the Court should adjudicate culturally or ethically sensitive issues. Recently, the Court has had to endure a barrage of critique for what is perceived as its usurpation of power from the Contracting States. The majority of the Grand Chamber goes to great lengths in this case to appease its critics and appear respectful of State sovereignty: ‘the Court’s task is not to substitute itself for the competent national authorities in determining the most appropriate policy for regulating matters of artificial procreation’ (par 92). And: ‘The Court considers that concerns based on moral considerations or on social acceptability must be taken seriously in a sensitive domain like artificial procreation’ (par. 100). The stakes are high; a lot of pressure is put on the Court. In its third-party intervention, the Italian Government practically announces the apocalypse if ovum donation were allowed: ‘to call maternal filiation into question by splitting motherhood would lead to a weakening of the entire structure of society’ (par 73).

It is impossible to navigate this debate and discuss all the facets of the case satisfactorily in a blog post. I will limit my discussion to the Court’s use of the margin of appreciation- and consensus-arguments, and Austria’s reasons in support of its restrictive legislation as regards assisted reproduction. Continue reading

Trafficking in Persons and the European Court of Human Rights

This guest post was written by Dr. Roberta Avellino. Dr. Avellino studied Law at the University of Malta where she graduated as Doctor of Laws. She has moreover obtained a Master of Laws in International Law following research on trafficking in persons, security governance and State responsibility. She has recently published an article on the subject entitled ‘Trafficking in Persons: A Contemporary Threat to Human Dignity’ (please note that the file takes a while to open) in the first issue of a new law journal, the ELSA Malta Law Review. We are thankful to Dr. Avellino for her contribution to our blog and wish the European Law Students’ Association Malta all the best with their newly founded journal!


The European Convention on Human Rights makes no direct reference to the modern crime of trafficking in persons. However, Article 4 prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour. But how should the parameters of servitude and the prohibition thereof be delineated? Is trafficking in persons included within the considerations of the Convention? The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has attempted to clarify this issue through the case of Siliadin v France[1] and held that a number of international human rights treaties aimed at protecting human beings from slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. In referring to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Court also officially recognized the unfortunate truth of modern day slavery despite the abolishment of this practice more than 150 years ago.[2]

On the 7th of January 2010, the European Court of Human Rights delivered what has been considered ‘a historic first judgment concerning cross border human trafficking in Europe’[3] in Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia[4] and unanimously found that trafficking in persons falls within the parameters of Article 4 of the Convention.

Continue reading

Inter-American Commission praises ECtHR in a landmark decision on domestic violence

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released its keenly anticipated merits report in the case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v United States a few weeks ago.  This was the first time a domestic violence survivor filed an international legal claim against the U.S.[1] The case has been extensively commented on elsewhere (see for example this article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal and this post on IntLawGrrls), so my aim with this post is just to flag the decision and note the extensive references to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights therein.

The facts of the case are horrifying. Continue reading

R.R. v. Poland: health rights under Art. 8 ECHR

By Laurens Lavrysen*

As Alexandra correctly noted in her post, R.R. v. Poland is a very interesting judgment. The focus of this post will lie on the general health rights implications of this judgment, which exceed the specific context of reproductive health.

In the case of Tysiąc v. Poland (ECtHR 20 March 2007) the Court stated that “once the legislature decides to allow abortion, it must not structure its legal framework in a way which would limit real possibilities to obtain it.” The Court ruled that Poland had violated Art. 8 ECHR because there was no procedure to establish whether Mrs. Tysiąc could have access to a legal abortion on health grounds. She had a severe sight disability and there were serious reasons to believe that her sight would decrease even more if she were to give birth. As she was denied access to an abortion, she eventually became almost blind.

The case of R.R. is quite comparable: the applicant is a woman who had a right to have an abortion under domestic law (on the ground that her fetus was severely malformed) but she was prevented effective access to this right (because the Polish doctors and hospitals she contacted deliberately refused to do a conclusive genetic test before the legal time limit).

Continue reading