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Italy: Forced pregnancy violated a woman’s human right to health, say UN experts

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GENEVA (27 March 2019) — Italy violated a woman’s human right to health after laws around fertility treatment led her to undergo a forced pregnancy, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said in a decision published today in Geneva.

The Committee, made up of 18 independent international experts on human rights, made their finding after the victims, a woman and man, together submitted an individual complaint alleging Italy had violated their human rights. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors human rights in countries which have signed on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Italy ratified in 1978.

The Committee’s full decision is available to read on-line.

After the couple sought treatment at a fertility clinic in 2009, the clinic produced an embryo with low chances of success. Fearing she would suffer a miscarriage, the woman requested that the embryo not be transferred to her uterus. However, the clinic informed her that she was not allowed, under the applicable Law 40/2004, to refuse the transfer and threatened to sue her if she insisted in her refusal. The woman felt compelled to allow the procedure and subsequently suffered a miscarriage.

After Italian courts refused to hear their case, the couple took it to the UN Committee, which has a mandate to receive complaints from individuals who have no remaining options for legal action in their home countries. Italy in 2015 ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, giving the Committee that power. 

In legal guidance to States parties, the Committee in 2016 wrote that “The right to sexual and reproductive health entails a set of freedoms and entitlements. The freedoms include the right to make free and responsible decisions and choices, free of violence, coercion and discrimination, regarding matters concerning one’s body and sexual and reproductive health.”

The Committee noted that the applicable Italian law in this case restricts the right of women undergoing the treatment to take back their consent, leading to possible forced medical interventions or even pregnancies for women undergoing in vitro fertilisation treatments. In its decision, the Committee wrote that “The possible consequences on women are extremely grave, constituting a direct violation of their right to health and physical integrity,” specifying that the transfer of an embryo to the woman’s uterus without her valid consent constituted a violation of her human right to the highest attainable standard of health and her human right to gender equality.

The Committee called for Italy to compensate the victims, ensure that they have access to IVF treatment without fear of eventual forced medical interventions, and adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the right of all women to take free decisions regarding medical intervention affecting their bodies, in particular ensuring their right to withdraw their consent to the transfer of embryos to their uterus. States which are party to the Covenant are under an international legal obligation to comply with the Committee’s findings in individual complaint cases.

The experts requested Italy to respond within six months to the Committee and explain how the country is implementing its decision.

Background 

The  Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors States parties’ adherence to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which to date has 169 States parties. The Committee is made up of 18 members who are independent human rights experts drawn from around the world, who serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of States parties.

Its Optional Protocol, ratified to date by 24 States parties, establishes the right of individuals to complain to the Committee against States which violated their human rights. The Optional Protocol imposes an international legal obligation on State parties to comply in good faith with the Committee’s Views. Further information on the individual complaints procedures before the Committees.

For media requests, please contact Julia Grønnevet in Geneva at +41 22 917 9310 / jgronnevet@ohchr.org.

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