Ireland’s new abortion guidelines endanger the lives and rights of women and girls

Ireland’s latest guidelines on abortion are mere window-dressing that will confuse health professionals and endanger women’s lives and rights, said Amnesty International.

“The only thing these guidelines really clarify is the incredibly restrictive and unworkable nature of the existing law,” said Elisa Slattery, sexual and reproductive rights researcher at Amnesty International.

“Drawing up burdensome guidelines to implement a highly restrictive law that is out of kilter with international human rights standards is an exercise in futility. Issuing guidelines to poor legislation isn’t enough; we need a completely different approach.” 

The guidelines issued today by the Department of Health are intended to ensure that a pregnant woman or girl can access a lawful abortion when there is a “real and substantial risk” to her life. 

This is the only exception permitted under the Irish law known as Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 (the Act). 

But instead of clarifying the Act for the health professionals tasked with implementing it, the guidelines reflect and exacerbate its many shortcomings. 

They fail miserably to address the most pressing issue of the Act – how exactly medical professionals are to assess when a pregnancy poses a “real and substantial” risk to the life of a woman or girl. 

“The guidelines literally relegate the well-being of women and girls to a footnote,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. 

“And they still require health professionals to engage in a constitutional balancing act when making decisions about whether a woman qualifies for an abortion.” 

“Rather than piecemeal measures which provide illusory access to abortion to save a woman or girl’s life, Amnesty International calls on Ireland to fully decriminalize abortion.” 

The Act, and Ireland’s underlying legal framework on abortion, have been repeatedly condemned for not adhering to international human rights standards on abortion. 

Most recently, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a scathing criticism of Ireland’s abortion laws. 

The Committee voiced particular concern about how the Act criminalizes abortion, including in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the pregnant woman or girl, and fatal foetal abnormality. 

It also voiced concern at how the law’s requirements of excessive scrutiny of pregnant and suicidal women lead to further mental distress.