UN rules Ireland's abortion laws violate women's human rights

The decision marks the second time the UN has called for law reform in the area

UN rules Ireland's abortion laws violate women's human rights

Flags of the 152 Member States fly at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City | Image: UN Photo/John Isaac

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled for the second time that Ireland’s abortion laws subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

This new decision recognises, yet again, that prohibiting abortion violates women’s human rights and calls on Ireland to reform its laws.

The UN Committee ruled in favour of Siobhán Whelan, who was denied access to abortion services in Ireland following a diagnosis, in 2010, of a fatal foetal impairment.

The Committee held that Ireland must provide Ms. Whelan with reparations for the harm she suffered and reform its laws to ensure other women do not continue to face similar violations.

It then instructed Ireland to legalise abortion and provide effective, timely and accessible abortion services in Ireland.

In March 2014, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint on behalf of Siobhán Whelan before the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing that Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws violated Ms. Whelan’s basic human rights by subjecting her to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, interfering with her right to privacy, and discriminating against her on the basis of her gender.

Leah Hoctor, Regional Director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights said:

“Siobhán Whelan bravely sought justice for the harm she and other women have endured as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws.

“The U.N. Human Rights Committee has now upheld her claims and told Ireland, for the second time, that its abortion laws are cruel and inhumane.

“Women’s health and wellbeing are harmed when they have to travel for abortion services. Political will to enable meaningful law reform is now imperative. The Government and Oireachtas must show leadership and act.”

Background 

In 2010, Siobhán Whelan learned during the course of her pregnancy that there was a fatal foetal impairment.

She made the decision not to continue with the pregnancy, yet because Ireland outlaws abortion in almost all circumstances, except where the life of a pregnant woman is at risk, she was prohibited from accessing abortion services in Ireland. She was not provided with any information or advice on how to access legal abortion services abroad. She eventually traveled to the United Kingdom to end the pregnancy.

The decision comes one year after the Committee’s decision in Mellet v. Ireland, in which the Committee made similar findings. Following that decision the Government paid compensation to Ms. Mellet and offered her access to psychological support services.

In its response to the Committee regarding its law reform obligations, the Government pointed to the Citizens’ Assembly and the Assembly’s mandate to recommend a roadmap for law reform.

In March 2017, the Committee considered the Government’s response and decided to continue its scrutiny of the State’s implementation of the Mellet decision.

Reaction

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties today welcomed the ruling.

Speaking today, ICCL Executive Director, Liam Herrick said:

“Cases where the UN Human Rights Committee finds violations of human rights are rare and are highly significant at an international level.

"We have now a further authoritative adjudication by a leading UN body that Irish abortion law is incompatible with human rights standards.

“This case is yet another reminder that Irish women and their families still have to resort to legal processes to assert their basic rights.

"Ms Whelan and her husband deserve immense credit for the courage and determination they have shown to proceed with this case and to tell their harrowing story in public; but we must ensure that Irish women and girls should not have to take this difficult road to achieve their basic human rights.”

Decline in figures

The UK Department of Health has today released abortion statistics from 2016, revealing that over 3,000 women and girls gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in England and Wales.

This brings the total number to 168,703 since 1980.

Commenting on these latest figures, Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) Chief Executive, Niall Behan said:

“These reports are an annual indictment of Ireland’s treatment of pregnant women. The State excludes women who opt not to continue unintended pregnancies from the healthcare system, forcing them to seek care outside of Ireland. This is reproductive coercion.

He added: “Not everyone has the means to access UK abortion clinics. We know from our services of women forced to continue pregnancies against their wishes, and increasing numbers of women are accessing the abortion pill online without proper medical supervision.”

“The State can no longer ignore the harm to women’s health and wellbeing caused by the denial of abortion services. The Citizens’ Assembly has given the Government a clear imperative to reform the law.

"It is time to prioritise pregnant women’s needs over political considerations and provide the care that over 3,000 women are denied every year.”

On the news, Head of the HSE Sexual Health & Crisis Pregnancy Programme, Helen Deely said: “We need to continue to ensure that women experiencing crisis pregnancy are aware of the free crisis pregnancy counselling services that are available in over 50 locations nationwide.

"Crisis pregnancy counsellors provide free, ongoing support and information to women and their partners. A list of crisis pregnancy services is available on www.positiveoptions.ie."

Abortion Rights Campaign spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said: “While the numbers of abortion seekers who gave an address in Ireland and Northern Ireland decreased, these numbers can not and never will be an accurate picture of the abortion service needs for women on the island of Ireland.

"We cannot know how many women and girls have been missed by these statistics. There is a desperate need for comprehensive figures to be compiled by the Government, but in the absence of a Referendum."

Statement by Siobhán Whelan

“I am very pleased with the decision by the Human Rights Committee and I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the Committee for its recognition of the harm I suffered, and the violation of my human rights, as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws.

"In taking this case, my hope was to help bring about a change in our laws so that when faced with the tragic news of a fatal foetal impairment women would have a choice to end the pregnancy in Ireland and not be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or to travel out of our country to access health care services like I had to.

"The Committee has stated that as a country we must change our laws on abortion to ensure that women no longer have to suffer in this way.

"It is clear to me that this can only happen after a successful constitutional referendum that will pave the way for new legislation.

"It is now my sincere hope for all those women and couples who find themselves in similar circumstances that it will not be long before our politicians finally find the courage to act and call a constitutional referendum and enable law reform."

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