Reservations About Women: Population Policy and Reproductive Rights

42 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2007


The 1994 Cairo Population Conference established a consensus that governmental population policies must be built on the cornerstones of human rights. Central to these rights is the principle of reproductive self-determination; individuals should be able to make informed choices about their reproductive activity, including the number and spacing of their children. This principle is of particular importance to women, who often lack control over their reproductive decision making. But population policies, utilitarian programs designed to manipulate birthrates to achieve demographic goals, rarely protect reproductive self-determination.

This article examines the dynamics of population policies and their effect on human rights. It analyzes the role of law in the formulation and implementation of population policies, particularly as it concerns the protection of women's reproductive rights. It argues that the law has been an ineffective mechanism for protecting women's reproductive rights because of legal and social marginalization or disregard of women's reproductive interests. The article begins by examining the theoretical tensions between utilitarian population theory and human rights principles. It then explores the conflict between women's rights and cultural relativism. The article concludes that legal norms alone are insufficient to protect reproductive rights in many societies; reproductive self determination will only become a reality in these cultures if the law serves also as an educator and motivator of social reforms.

Keywords: Cairo Population Conference, population policy, human rights, reproductive rights, reproductive self-determination, cultural relativism

JEL Classification: K1, K2, K3, K4

Suggested Citation

Abrams, Paula L., Reservations About Women: Population Policy and Reproductive Rights. Cornell International Law Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1996, Available at SSRN:

Paula L. Abrams (Contact Author)

Lewis & Clark Law School ( email )

10015 S.W. Terwilliger Blvd.
Portland, OR 97219
United States
503-768-6632 (Phone)
503-768-6716 (Fax)

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