What Are Reproductive Rights?

Reproductive rights are a class of human rights associated with reproductive health and autonomy. 

This set of rights has been controversial throughout history. Political, emotional, and ideological factors have influenced how the law protects these rights.

Issues like birth control often lead to emotionally charged controversy. Conflicting views on abortion and family planning also spur debate. Political, ethical, and religious stances frequently influence these views.

The resulting debate touches on some of the most sensitive issues in society. For example, the most controversial aspect of the reproductive rights debate in the United States has long been abortion.

Read an introduction to reproductive rights and their basis in law, including:

What Do Reproductive Rights Include?

These rights may include:

Reproductive law also creates protections against issues like sexual coercion and gender discrimination.

Laws about these rights vary widely across the world. In the United States, the landscape of reproductive law is complicated.

Where Do Reproductive Rights Come From?

The U.S. Constitution, court case decisions, and state laws can all influence your rights. Reproductive rights are a diverse subset of human rights.

Federal Reproductive Rights

The U.S. Constitution does not make specific reference to reproductive rights.

Yet, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to limit government interference with the following parts of life:

The Constitution focuses heavily on protecting rights against government control. Yet, it creates few duties to provide government benefits. The Constitution does not create a right to access resources. It does not entitle people to certain services associated with reproduction.

For example, Eisenstadt stopped the government from outlawing contraceptives. But it did not require the government to give contraceptive methods, like birth control pills, to the public.

International Reproductive Law

International human rights law often recognizes a positive right to “reproductive health care services, and goods, and facilities." For example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explains that these benefits must be:

  • Provided in adequate numbers

  • Accessible physically and economically

  • Accessible without discrimination

  • Of good quality

Even so, international compliance with these standards varies widely.

Reproductive Laws Balance Public Control and Private Choice

Reproductive law reflects a larger civil rights debate. How far should the government extend into your personal life? Federal and state laws set how far it can reach.

At the center of reproductive law is the legal concept of self-determination. This term refers to your legal ability to directly control facets of your life. Another common word to describe self-determination is “autonomy.”

Many legal rights protect your personal decision-making power, including your Constitutional rights. Such laws limit how much the government can intrude on this power. But these rights don’t necessarily compel the government to provide you with reproductive care.

Reproductive health is a significant part of life. For example, you may decide whether you want children. This decision could affect everything, including your career, social life, and daily tasks. Or, you may want a hysterectomy or vasectomy. These medical procedures have significant health consequences — whether overall positive or negative in your personal view.

Much of the debate surrounding reproductive rights focuses on personal liberty. They concern the rights to make your own choices regarding reproduction.

The Abortion Debate: 'Pro-Life' vs. 'Pro-Choice'

Abortion is the single most controversial issue involving reproduction in the United States. This issue illustrates the legal question of private life versus government oversight.

Abortion laws can address many factors, such as consent and the timing of pregnancy termination. It is important to note that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” categories encompass a broad spectrum of views.

Pro-Choice Legal Perspectives

On one side, “pro-choice" advocates argue that the right to abortion falls within the right to control your own body. They believe the medical decision to end pregnancy should rest with patients and doctors.

Advocates for full reproductive autonomy also claim that restrictions will limit some people, such as women, more than other people. Some arguments also assert that people of color and people with disabilities face a more severe impact under reproductive restrictions. Some people in the country would naturally have more of a right to bodily autonomy than others — purely due to biological differences.

Pro-Life Legal Perspectives

On the other side, “pro-life" advocates argue that an unborn fetus has a right to life. In turn, your right to self-determination should end when an abortion may deny life to a fetus. They often define a fetus as a living being at the moment of conception or once a fetal heartbeat is present.

This perspective often also aligns with particular religious views. Some religious groups — but not all — consider abortion to conflict with their ideological beliefs. Religious pro-life advocacy groups face backlash. Opponents argue that religious-based legislation would infringe upon First Amendment rights, particularly the freedom of religion. Yet, the counterargument returns to whether the law also protects fetal rights.

How Do Courts Treat Reproductive Rights?

United States courts, including the Supreme Court, have issued rulings that reflect the debates around the rest of the country. Judges may interpret existing laws differently.

At times, courts have favored more personal control of reproductive options. But courts have also created limitations. Sometimes, courts even overturn or weaken prior court rulings, such as in the following series of famous abortion cases.

The Court Created a Right to Abortion

For example, Roe v. Wade (1973) established federal abortion rights. The landmark Roe decision held that pregnant women have a right to an abortion. This right relates to the right to privacy in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The case also held that the right to abortion must balance the government's interests. These interests include protecting women's health and prenatal life.

This decision was controversial from the beginning. Pro-life advocates criticized it for its perceived activism. Pro-choice advocates also criticized it for not going far enough.

The Court Modified Abortion Rights

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the underlying meaning of Roe. It struck down a state law that requires pregnant women to get spousal consent before an abortion. It held that it is unconstitutional for the government to create laws that put "a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus." (Nonviability refers to a fetus's inability to survive outside the womb.)

However, the Supreme Court also made it easier for the government to restrict legal abortions. It did so by replacing Roe's strict scrutiny standard. Instead, it created a more lenient undue burden standard.

The Court Reversed Federal Abortion Rights

Despite these holdings, the abortion debate remained heated. It boiled over thirty years later. The Supreme Court reversed course entirely by overturning Roe and Casey. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022), the judges decided that the Constitution does not create a right to an abortion.

In doing so, the Supreme Court handed the power to create abortion laws — whether restrictive or permissive — back to the states. Under federal law, there is no outright ban on abortions, but abortion care can be harder to access. After Dobbs, it is a matter left up to the states.

How Do State Laws for Reproductive Rights Differ?

State laws and courts determine a variety of reproductive topics, including:

  • Mandatory waiting periods or other requirements for abortion services

  • Medicaid expansions (public health insurance) for improving access to reproductive health care

  • Parental consent for access to birth control medication and other contraception

  • Public curriculum requirements for sex education

Your reproductive rights can vary greatly among states. Federal laws set fundamental rights, but state laws address most details.

States can create extra protections. Or, states may create strict regulations around reproductive access. Each state may allocate public funding toward various reproductive health programs. States can also set enforcement procedures as long as they comply with federal law.

State Laws for Abortion

In some states, “trigger laws" immediately stopped abortion providers from continuing their services after Dobbs. People in these states must now seek legal abortion services by traveling out of their home states. In other states, abortion laws are still in flux.

In states like Texas, reproductive care has historically been harder to get. In other states like New York and Illinois, there are far fewer restrictions on access to abortion than elsewhere.

Universal abortion bans are not in effect across every jurisdiction. You can still obtain in-clinic medication abortions. The FDA has indicated that abortion medications can be “safely" used to terminate pregnancies. Many pregnancy-related circumstances can enable abortion care in many states. There are more restrictions now. But if you live in a state where you cannot get an abortion, you can still travel across state lines.

For more information, see FindLaw's state-by-state guide to abortion laws.

Do Men Have Reproductive Rights?

Yes, men also have reproductive rights. These laws do not differentiate based on sex and gender. Historically, reproductive law was part of a broader gender inequality conversation. Yet, reproductive law governs everyone.

Men’s reproductive legal concerns often involve issues such as:

  • False paternity

  • Adoption, including for single male parents and same-sex adoptive fathers

  • Fathers’ rights, including child custody and child support

  • Control over frozen embryos

  • Medical care for unborn fetuses

  • Access to reproductive health care

Reproductive rights advocacy partly differs due to biological differences. For example, a state law may restrict all abortions after the first trimester. Most men cannot experience pregnancy. That law does not exclude men from this restriction, but it might not functionally impact their bodily autonomy. Pregnancy can significantly affect maternal health. That’s why reproductive justice and advocacy are a typical focus of women's rights.

Some health topics directly impact some people more than others. However, they are not the only topics related to reproductive choices and the law.

Rights Against Sterilization

Forced sterilization is a prominent example affecting both men and women. Like abortion, it concerns a person’s right to bodily autonomy.

This issue was central to the eugenics movement in the United States and abroad. The movement claimed that sterilization could improve public health. Yet, ethnic and socioeconomic prejudice drove the movement. It also claimed to eliminate “undesirable" segments of a population. It discriminated against people with disabilities.

In Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), the Supreme Court held that forced sterilization was unconstitutional. Oklahoma forcibly sterilized Hubert Moore, a five-time convict deemed a “habitual criminal." Oklahoma law made exceptions for those convicted of white-collar crimes involving similar offenses. The judges did not rule on whether states should have the power to sterilize felons. Instead, they ruled that the specific state law did not offer everyone equal protection.

There is also evidence of forced sterilization of women. The assumption was that it could reduce sexually transmitted infections. Examples of these infections include HIV/AIDS in marginalized populations abroad. 

Forced sterilization has not been fully outlawed in the United States. But it violates many international human rights, including the right to be free from torture.

Men’s Reproductive Rights Advocacy

Some groups advocate for men's reproductive rights. Like women’s rights groups, they tend to focus on legislative change. They work to advance gender equality and protections primarily benefiting men.

There are many types of men’s legal advocacy groups with differing goals and perspectives. Some men’s rights activist (MRA) groups claim to target gender-based disparities yet face criticism. Opponents argue that their efforts aim to favor men by undercutting women’s legal rights.

Dubay v. Wells (2007) demonstrates how men’s rights advocacy can lead to controversy. A father argued that the Equal Protection Clause gave him the right to not pay child support for an unwanted child. Before intercourse, the mother claimed she was unable to get pregnant due to infertility. The father argued that he could refuse unwanted fatherhood just as a mother could refuse an unwanted pregnancy.

The court rejected the father's claims. The case is now praised and derided as "Roe v. Wade for Men."

Do Minors Have Reproductive Rights?

Yes, minors have many of the same protections as adults at the state and federal levels. Minors’ rights can also involve a few unique legal matters like parental consent and education.

In the United States, minors’ sexual and reproductive health and rights are mostly in the hands of the states. Again, the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs has left state laws governing reproductive rights in flux.

Perhaps the most emblematic example of the resulting controversy regarding the reproductive rights of minors is the case of a 10-year-old girl in Ohio. In this case, she traveled across state lines to abort a pregnancy caused by rape. The case has become a flashpoint in the national debate over abortion.

Most states have parental notification and consent requirements. They often restrict abortion access for minors. The Supreme Court initially upheld these requirements under the standard of Casey decades ago, which it has since overturned. Many healthcare providers concerned with the well-being of minors have opposed laws restricting minors' reproductive freedoms.

Discuss Your Reproductive Rights With a Lawyer

Reproductive rights have long been one of the most controversial social issues in the United States. It will likely remain so in the coming years.

As the law evolves, new cases and laws may challenge current freedoms and restrictions. In this highly volatile area of law, getting the most accurate legal and health information is important.

Speak with a lawyer as soon as possible if you believe your rights are being violated. A family lawyer in your area can explain your rights under current law.

 

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