Shine A Light

Human rights, why should I care? Thalidomide and other stories

Three real life cases from RightsInfo illuminate why human rights matter.

Adam Wagner
24 June 2015

Sunday Times, 27 June 1976. Legs for a Thalidomide-affected boy, 1975 (London Science Museum)

The free press

The year is 1961. A woman in the UK gives birth to her child. But something is wrong. The newborn child has deformed limbs.

The cause was Thalidomide – a drug first produced in 1957 in Germany, and released in the UK in 1958. It was popular with many pregnant women for reducing morning sickness. Unfortunately, Thalidomide caused devastating harm to unborn babies. Over 10,000 children across the world were born with severe birth defects. The drug manufacturer, Distillers, entered talks with the victims’ families to compensate them for the damage caused by the drugs.

Meanwhile, there was a swelling of public outrage. The Sunday Times launched a campaign in support of the victims. However, the Attorney General stopped the publication of a particular article which detailed the history and negligence involved in the drug’s development. The Attorney General argued that the article would be a contempt of court, as it would unfairly influence the on-going negotiations between the victims’ parents and Distillers.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Attorney General violated the Sunday Times’s right to freedom of expression. They said that “the thalidomide disaster” was “a matter of undisputed public concern”. Therefore, the press had a right to inform the public about the facts of the case, and the victims’ families had a right to learn the truth about the drugs.

The legacy of Thalidomide remains with us. The drug is still used – albeit in limited circumstances – to help treat cancer patients. Surviving victims are still fighting to gain compensation. Yet this story shows that in a case of exceptional public interest, the general public have a right to know the truth behind a tragedy.

This story is a short summary of a legal judgment. You can read the full judgment here.

Prisoner voting and civil death

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” We’ve all heard this muttered by a bad-talking TV cop slapping handcuffs on a villain. There’s a point to the phrase. Punishment makes sure that justice is done. And justice must be done. It is the foundation for any healthy society.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled that justice does not require a blanket ban to stops all prisoners from voting. The Court’s judgment was based on a case brought to it by John Hirst, who had been convicted of manslaughter. He claimed that he was denied his right to regular, free and fair elections because he was not allowed to vote.

The case should have had a significant effect on many prisoners – not just Hirst. The judges accepted that the right to vote did not need to be given to every prisoner. But they also argued that a blanket ban could not be justified for two reasons. First, voting is a right and not a privilege: it is something we are all automatically entitled to just by being citizens, not something that needs to be earned by good behaviour. The government was therefore wrong to say that people who have behaved badly can automatically be stopped from voting.

Second, a blanket ban does not distinguish between different prisoners, who have committed different crimes. The punishment is meant to fit the crime. We even have different types of prisons for different types of offences. So why should all prisoners be subject to the exact same extra punishment?


Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2013

This case is probably more famous for the anger it caused in the UK than the outcome. That controversy has meant that now, 10 years after the original judgment, it has still not been implemented. It may be that this judgment, which probably only requires that a few thousand of the UK’s 80,000 prisoners get to vote, leads to the UK leaving the European Convention. Ultimately, it might seem the Court was going too easy on prisoners by getting rid of the total voting ban. But they’re still being punished: in all the months and years of missed moments and memories. They’re still doing their time.

This story is a short summary of a legal judgment. You can read the full judgment here. More on this case: BBC News, UK Human Rights BlogJoint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill.

I’m a woman. Deal with it

Times change. People change. Society and the law sometimes have to catch up, and catch up quick.

Christine Goodwin had changed. She was born a man but identified as a woman. She had been married with four children and was the children’s biological father. After decades dressing as a man for work but a woman in her free time, Christine began the long and difficult process of gender re-assignment. She had surgery and became a male to female transsexual. But Christine remained, in the eyes of the law, male. She could not draw a pension at age 60. She felt unable to do things which would require her to present her birth certificate, such as obtaining the winter fuel allowance and reporting that £200 had been stolen from her, as this would reveal her previous identity. The law also prevented her from marrying a man.

Christine took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that her right to private life and right to marry had been violated. The Court said that the law conflicted with an important aspect of Christine’s personal identity, which was a serious interference with her private life. Her right to marry had also been breached.


European Court of Human Rights judgment, July 2002

Because of Christine’s case, an Act of Parliament, the Gender Recognition Act 2004, was passed to give legal recognition to transsexual people as members of their new gender. The Act allows them to obtain a new birth certificate and permits them to marry members of the opposite gender. Christine passed away in December 2014. She was one of the few transsexual people to use her name in her application to court, because she “had nothing to be ashamed of”. Her victory strengthened the human rights of transsexual people throughout Europe. A great legacy for a very brave woman.

This story is a short summary of a legal judgment. You can read the full judgment here. More at BBC News.


The Conservative government wants to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. We don’t yet know what that will look like. Meanwhile, public debate is fogged by misinformation and lack of understanding. Human rights advocates need to convey to people why human rights matters to them.  

These three short stories about real human rights cases were first posted on a new site, RightsInfo, which provides clear and reliable information about why human rights matter. The stories were written by the RightsInfo Project Volunteers and edited by Adam Wagner. RightsInfo is turning 50 key human rights cases into plain-English stories and publishing one each weekday. You can find the full list here.

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