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The Gendered Human Rights Syllabus? Uncovering Legal Academics’ Views on Reproductive Rights in Legal Education

In this post covering work that would have been presented at our 2020 conference in April,  Dr Lynsey Mitchell from Abertay University, Dundee outlines some thoughts on the content of human rights modules and the gendered nature of the choices we make when we design courses. She is currently researching these issues (with Dr Doug Morrison, Leeds Beckett University)  and if you teach or have taught on human rights modules, please share your thoughts by completing Lynsey and Doug’s survey

Human rights practitioners and scholars have long pronounced reproductive rights a central strand of women’s rights. Yet, despite growing attention to women’s rights[1], or indeed increasing utilisation of feminist and wider critical perspectives in human rights teaching [2], there has been less attention devoted to the content of human rights modules and the attitudes of law teachers on the inclusion of reproductive rights within human rights teaching. 

It is clear that, when it comes to teaching human rights in law schools, there is often a reluctance to engage with the issue of reproductive rights. Mainstream human rights modules and textbooks appear to devote some space to discussing women’s rights. However, this usually involves a generic introduction to the international treaties and legal instruments that discuss women specific violations of women’s rights. This material is often presented as a niche subset of lectures within human rights modules, if at all. This suggests that, due to time constraints, women’s rights may be discussed in a generic manner, leaving little time to focus on the myriad of contemporary rights issues affecting women, and even less time to focus specifically on reproductive rights. Wider academic literature on human rights teaching tends to focus on the provision of practical human rights education. There are extensive studies on how to effectively provide human rights-based information to the public, in addition to guides on best practice for training NGO staff in human rights. However, there is a paucity of information on how human rights is taught in universities, particularly law schools, and how the selection and framing of such content may influence future legal practitioners’ views. While leading feminist and critical scholars have identified that legal knowledge as taught in universities has traditionally failed to incorporate women’s experience of the law [3], and several feminist projects (e.g., The Feminist Judgment Project) have sought to highlight this absence and mainstream gender throughout the law curriculum, there is little existing research on the success of such projects in expanding the traditional human rights syllabus away from traditional liberal concepts of civil and political rights, which tend to exclude particular violations of women’s rights. 

Interestingly, there is recent research on attitudes and perceptions on the visibility of reproductive rights in other higher education disciplines. There is a growing volume of literature on medical students’ and medical practitioners’ perceptions and attitudes toward abortion,  focussing on how this is taught in medical schools. [4] Such literature acknowledges that the cultural environment and discourse on abortion in university education will have a substantial influence on future healthcare practitioners’ attitudes toward abortion, and thus a real influence on how future society understands and frames reproductive rights. 

In the same way, future legal practitioners’ understanding of abortion and their willingness to situate reproductive rights within the human rights framework is perhaps likewise influenced by implicit biases in university teaching. Given the paucity of research on perceptions and attitudes toward reproductive rights, and its place in human rights education, it seems there is a gap in our understanding of whether legal professionals necessarily view abortion, and reproductive rights in general, as core human rights norms. 

In the same way that research into the medical academy’s presentation of reproductive rights within modules challenges resistance to norms [5], research determining what explicit or implicit biases might exist in delivering content on reproductive rights within law schools  would help determine how future lawyers come to understand the UK’s various legal regimes on abortion, and how human rights law may be of use in challenging these. This is the research we are now doing, funded by the Society of Legal Scholars and it is hoped that it will firstly assist in helping to determine how (or indeed whether) legal academics include content on reproductive rights within their human rights modules and secondly to determine how the framing of abortion in a university law school may come to influence the attitudes of future legal practitioners.

If you are interested in participating in the study, please click here to complete a short survey on your views and experience of teaching human rights law. This is fully anonymised and should take less than 10 minutes. Anyone who has taught human rights is invited to participate.


[1] Charlotte Bunch ‘Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-vision of Human Rights’ 12 Human Rights Quarterly  (1990) 486, Rebecca J Cook ‘Women’s International Human Rights Law: The Way Forward’ 15 Human Rights Quarterly (1993) 230; Rebecca J Cook and Bernard M Dickens ‘Human Rights Dynamics of Abortion Law Reform’ (2003) 25 (1) Human Rights Quarterly  1.

[2] Hilary Charlesworth ‘Feminist Critiques of International Law and Their Critics’ 1994-1995 Third World Legal Studies 1;  Karen Engle ‘International Human Rights and Feminism: When Discourses Meet’ 13 Michigan Journal of International Law 517 (1991-1992);  Celina Romany ‘Women as Aliens: A Feminist Critique of the Public/Private Distinction in International Human Rights Law’ 6 Harvard Human Rights Journal 87 (1993).

[3]  Martha L Fineman ‘Challenging Law, Establishing Differences: The Future of Feminist Legal Scholarship’ 42 Florida Law Review 25 (1990); Carrie Menkel-Meadow ‘Excluded Voices: New Voices in the Legal Profession Making New Voices in the Law’ 42 Miami Law Review (1987-1988); Catharine A MacKinnon Women’s Lives Men’s Laws (Harvard University Press, 2005).

[4]  R Gleeson et al ‘Medical Students’ Attitudes Towards Abortion: a UK Study’ Journal of Medical Ethics 34 (11)   2008; Hagen et al ‘Attitudes of Medical Students Towards Abortion’ Tidsskrift for Praktisk Medicin, ny Raekke, 01 Sep 2011, 131(18):1768-177.

[5] Kathryn McNeilly, Claire Pierson, and Fiona Bloomer, ‘Moving Forward From Judicial Review on Abortion in Situations of Fatal Foetal Abnormality and Sexual Crime: The Experience of Health Professionals’ (2016) Queen’s University Belfast; Claire Pierson and Fiona Bloomer, ‘Macro and Micro-Political Vernaculizations of Rights: Human Rights and Abortion Discourses in Northern Ireland’ 2017 19 Health and Human Rights Journal 173.


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