UN highlights the shame of Ireland’s harsh abortion laws

A ruling issued today by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) that Ireland’s harsh abortion laws violated the human rights of an Irish woman is yet another reminder of the desperate need for reform, Amnesty International said.

While we welcome this ruling, it is outrageous that women have to go to the UN to have their human rights respected.
Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International's Deputy Europe Director

The UNHRC ordered that Ireland redress the harm it caused to Siobhán Whelan, who was forced to travel to the UK for an abortion in 2010, including by reforming its abortion laws to prevent similar violations happening to other women.

“This is the second case within a year where the UN has found Ireland’s abortion laws to be grossly out of step with its international human rights obligations. While we welcome this ruling, it is outrageous that women have to go to the UN to have their human rights respected. How many more women will have to suffer before the Irish government opens its eyes?” said Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director.

The majority of people in Ireland consider the near-total abortion ban to be cruel, inhumane and discriminatory. It is long past time for the government to let them have their say by scheduling a referendum on the issue.”

The UNHRC found that Ireland’s abortion laws violated Siobhán Whelan’s rights, including her rights to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to privacy and equality. It said that Ireland subjected Ms Whelan to a “high level of mental anguish”, and that the criminalization of abortion in Ireland caused her shame and stigma.

Ms Whelan’s suffering was, the UNHRC found, further aggravated by the obstacles she faced in receiving information she needed, and health professionals did not provide her with clear and detailed information, disrupting the provision of medical care.

Today’s ruling comes just weeks after the Citizens’ Assembly, a public forum convened by the government to consider a number of issues including Ireland’s abortion laws, recommended that the Eighth Amendment, which gives the foetus an equal right to life to the right to life of the woman, be removed from the Constitution.

Under Ireland’s constitution, the Eighth Amendment can only be repealed by popular referendum.

The Assembly recommended abortion on request at least in early pregnancy and for a wide range of circumstances in later stages of pregnancy. Its recommendations would meet the minimum requirements of international human rights law and guarantee an abortion framework that ensures safe and timely access to abortion services for all women and girls both in law and in practice.

However, Amnesty International is also calling for abortion to be fully decriminalized in full compliance with international human rights law and standards.  

“Thousands of women and girls are forced to travel abroad every year to seek abortions, treated like criminals and traumatized by the shame and stigma that result from these laws"
Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International's Deputy Europe Director

The UNHRC ruling echoes the decision it made in June 2016 in the case of Amanda Mellet. In November 2016, the Irish government agreed to pay compensation and provide counselling services to Ms Mellet, who was also denied an abortion despite receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

“Thousands of women and girls are forced to travel abroad every year to seek abortions, treated like criminals and traumatized by the shame and stigma that result from these laws,” said Gauri Van Gulik.

“The Irish government must take heed of today’s ruling, and commit to respecting women’s rights by allowing people in Ireland the opportunity to repeal the Eighth Amendment in a referendum.”

Background

In the 2015 report She is Not a Criminal: the impact of Ireland’s abortion law, Amnesty International documented the harrowing experiences that women and girls in Ireland have endured because of the restrictive laws on abortion. The report concluded that Irish law restricting access to abortion causes multiple violations of women’s and girls’ human rights.

Amnesty International’s submission to the Citizen’s Assembly summarizes the harm and human rights violations caused by Ireland’s criminalization and prohibition of abortion. A copy of the submission is available here. (PDF)

Amnesty International Ireland’s 2016 independent Red C poll found 80% of Irish people are aware that women and girls have a human right to access abortion, and 87% are in favour of expanded access to abortion.