Abortion FAQ

What is Amnesty’s position on access to abortion?

Amnesty is a human rights organisation. Our position on abortion, like our position on every other issue, is grounded in international human rights law and standards.

Whoever you are, wherever you live, all the decisions you make about your own body should be yours. Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. They guarantee that everyone should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies, get accurate information about their health care options and access sexual and reproductive health services. We are campaigning to make sure that we all have control over our sexual and reproductive choices.

Women and girls in Ireland have a human right to access abortion services. Severe or fatal foetal impairments are serious medical conditions which often mean that the foetus may not survive birth, or for very long after birth.

In order to comply with international human rights law, governments must provide access to abortion not just in theory but in practice. States have a legal obligation to ensure that access to abortion is effectively available to women and girls and free from any barriers or unnecessary delays.

Women are more likely to be able to access abortion services, when it is available on request in early stages of pregnancy. International organisations like the World Health Organisation and UN human rights bodies agree that when abortion is only allowed in limited circumstances women are more likely to face barriers in accessing abortion services, even when they qualify for a legal abortion.

Women and girls must also have access to abortion on the minimum grounds set out under international human rights law for the duration of their pregnancies. Therefore, they should have access to safe and legal abortion when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, when the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s health or following a severe or fatal foetal impairment diagnosis. Abortion ‘on request’ should be available without limits for adolescent girls, guaranteeing their best interests, and ensuring in law and practice that their views are always heard and respected in abortion decisions.

We do not take a position on whether or not an individual woman or girl should have an abortion, just that it should be her choice to make, together with the medical professionals and loved ones she chooses to involve. Interestingly, our Red C poll found that 80% of people are aware that women have a right to access abortion in certain circumstances and that 87% would favour expanded access to abortion.

International law also calls for the decriminalisation of abortion in all circumstances. No woman should ever face criminal charges for having had an abortion regardless of her circumstances. No medical professional should be prosecuted for providing an essential abortion-related healthcare service.

Decriminalisation means removing the criminal sanctions (currently a prison term of up to 14 years or a fine of up to €4,000) which women and medical professionals face if found guilty of having or administrating an illegal abortion. Decriminalising abortion does not mean unregulated abortion. International human rights law recognises that states can put reasonable abortion regulations in place.

Where does international human rights law come from?

The UN’s human rights treaties are negotiated and adopted by states, including Ireland. These treaties are not imposed on states but they are legally binding. The rights set out in the treaties are expressed in broad terms, leaving it to treaty monitoring bodies composed of independent experts (also nominated and elected by states like Ireland) to provide guidance and interpretation on the precise meaning of the treaties.

Treaty monitoring bodies are very clear that women and girls have a human right to access abortion services. Denying access to abortion in these circumstances is a violation of women and girls’ rights to life, health, information, non-discrimination and freedom from torture or other ill-treatment. Treaty monitoring bodies also encourage states to go further in liberalising access to abortion. Making access to abortion a criminal offence is a further violation of women’s human rights.

Most recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Ireland’s abortion law violated the human rights of Amanda Mellet, who travelled to the UK for a termination following a fatal foetal impairment diagnosis. The Committee found that Ireland’s abortion law caused her “intense physical and mental suffering”. In the past two years, Ireland’s abortion regime, which is among the most restrictive in the world, has been condemned by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Sixteen of Ireland’s fellow UN member states recommended that Ireland expand access to abortion during Ireland’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council.

But, there’s no treaty that has a “right to abortion” in it.

International human rights law is set out in broad terms. Treaty monitoring bodies made up of independent experts (elected by states like Ireland) interpret the precise meaning and scope of the treaty’s provisions on an ongoing basis. This is how international human rights law works.

While the right to access abortion services is not explicitly stated in international human rights treaties, it is derived from a number of human rights, including the right to life, health, privacy, equality and non-discrimination, and the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment. The right to access abortion services is firmly grounded in decades of jurisprudence.

Forcing a woman or girl to continue with a pregnancy that is a result of rape or incest, or where her health is in danger, or where a severe or fatal foetal impairment exists, can cause severe mental suffering and harm. Severe or fatal foetal impairments are serious medical conditions which often mean that the foetus may not survive birth, or for very long after birth. Denying access to abortion in these circumstances can violate a woman or girl’s human rights, including the right not to be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment. When a pregnancy puts a woman’s health at risk, denial of abortion would violate her right to life or her right to health. The Irish state has never rejected this interpretation of its human rights law obligations.

Similarly, there is no specifically enumerated right to truth for victims of human rights violations. This right has been interpreted by the UN’s human rights mechanisms as existing within other human rights, and is inextricably linked with the right to a remedy.

And what about the foetus’s human rights?

Human rights apply after birth, not before. Terminating a pregnancy is not incompatible with the right to life. International and regional human rights treaty provisions protecting the right to life do not extend prenatally (for example, article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”). No human rights body has ever found abortion to be incompatible with human rights.

Some people believe that life begins at the point of conception and from that moment forward, a foetus is entitled to the same protections as a born woman. For many it is a deeply held personal view, though it has no basis in human rights law.

What is Amnesty International’s position on abortion on the basis of disabilities?

The decisions women and girls make about their own bodies and reproduction should be theirs. Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. They guarantee that everyone should be able to make their own decisions about their bodies, get accurate information about their health care options and access sexual and reproductive health services. We are campaigning to make sure that we all have control over our sexual and reproductive choices.

Amnesty is not campaigning for access to abortion specifically on the grounds of disability. We are calling for a legal and medical framework for abortion that respects the reproductive rights and decisions of women and girls.

Ireland’s almost total abortion ban does not prevent abortions from taking place and restricting access to abortion does not enhance the rights of people with disabilities. The best way for governments to promote the rights of people with disabilities and combat discrimination against them is to put into place laws and policies that support the autonomy and rights of all people with disabilities, as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This includes providing families with the correct information and support they need to raise children with disabilities and ensuring that people with disabilities can participate as equal members of society.

The Centre for Disability Law and Policy (CDLP), NUI Galway, explains in its submission to the Citizens’ Assembly that “it is possible to  develop a legislative framework for abortion  that respects a woman’s right  to choose while  simultaneously valuing the lives of persons with disabilities and providing support for people  with  disabilities  to  live  full  lives  in  their  Communities”.

It continues: “Significant reform is needed to ensure that the information provided to women  about  continuing  a  pregnancy  and  raising  a  child  with  a  disability  is  accurate,  disability-sensitive  and  respectful  of  human  rights. We  recognise  that  women  may  choose  to  terminate a pregnancy for a wide variety of reasons – and that one possible reason is the lack  of state and other community support  to  raise a child with a disability. The solution  to  this  grave  problem  is  not,  in  our  view,  to  make  abortion  impossible  to  access,  but  rather,  to  ensure  that  the  state  fulfils  its  obligations  to  provide  adequate  supports  healthcare, social support, education, etc. so that people with disabilities and their families  can live full lives with dignity in their own communities.”

Women and girls with disabilities also need access to abortion services and the necessary information to make decisions about their healthcare options. They have the same entitlements under international human rights law as all other women and girls. The CDLP submission to the Citizens’ Assembly highlights the many barriers people with disabilities can face in endeavouring to access abortion overseas including  physical  access to transport and services, as well as the support required to travel, such as personal  assistance, especially for those living in congregated settings  and in accessing  information about services available in another state.

Isn’t adoption a better option than abortion? What is Amnesty position on adoption?

Amnesty’s policy supports ensuring that women and girls facing unwanted pregnancies have options, including adoption. But, it cannot be the only option. Any counselling for women and girls with unwanted pregnancies should be comprehensive, explaining the full range of options available to them. This support should be non-biased and non-coercive. Adoption should never be forced on women and girls, and they should not be forced or manipulated to continue with a pregnancy against their wishes.

Does Amnesty think abortion should be available up to birth?

Amnesty takes no position on this – only that any limits placed on access to abortion must not violate women’s and girls’ rights. States may regulate access to abortion, including by setting gestational limits. For such limits to be reasonable however, they must take into account the human rights of women and girls, including their right to life and their right to health. If, for example, a state did not allow abortion after a certain point even if the woman’s health was at risk, it could violate her human rights.

I don’t think it’s right to have an abortion when the woman or girl is pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

International human rights law is clear that survivors of sexual violence have a right to access legal abortion. The physical and mental trauma that women and girls experience when they are forced to continue with a pregnancy that is a result of rape or incest is well-documented. It is a serious violation of her right to health. That’s why women and girls have a right to access abortion services in these circumstances. Not all women will choose a termination, but some will. It is a decision that rests with the woman or girl herself, together the medical professionals and loved ones she chooses to involve. Several UN treaty monitoring bodies, including the UN Committee against Torture, have said that denying abortion in these circumstances can amount to torture or other ill-treatment.

The World Health Organisation recommends that women and girls should be provided with safe, legal abortion services based on their complaint of rape, and should not be compelled to undergo any unnecessary administrative or judicial procedures such as pressing charges against the perpetrator or identifying the rapist.

What is the impact of Ireland’s abortion law on women and girls?

Ireland’s abortion law and the Eighth Amendment have a serious impact on women’s physical and mental health and on doctors’ ability to do their jobs.
Currently, abortion is illegal except when there is a “real and substantial” risk to the woman’s or girl’s life. Even if a woman or girl is pregnant as a result of rape or incest, if there is a severe or fatal foetal impairment, or her physical or mental health is at risk, she cannot have a legal abortion in Ireland. When a woman or girl is denied access to abortion in these circumstances, her human rights are violated. She may experience serious psychological and physical harm while trying to access essential medical care in another country.

She is forced to find and cover the cost of a termination in a foreign country, breaching the continuum of medical care. Many women feel abandoned, scared and stigmatised because the medical services they seek are prohibited and criminalised in Ireland. They often feel unable or afraid to tell loved ones about their decisions or to seek medical support, advice and after-care in Ireland. The toll that this climate of criminalisation and secrecy has on women’s wellbeing is enormous and cannot be ignored.

Ireland’s abortion law also deny women access to information about their healthcare options. It prevents women from making informed decisions about their pregnancies with the advice and support of healthcare practitioners they know and trust. Health professionals could face criminal sanction if they are deemed to be ‘advocating or promoting’ abortion, and are prohibited from making referrals for abortions services in other countries. This can make it difficult for women (and impossible for some) to find the information they need.

Ireland’s abortion laws put women’s health at grave risk. Our ‘She’s not a criminal’ report documents the serious human rights violations experienced by women and girls in Ireland.

80% of people in Ireland believe that women’s health must be the priority in any reform of Ireland’s abortion laws.

What is the impact of Ireland’s abortion law on medical professionals?

Ireland’s abortion law forces doctors to play medical roulette with women’s health and lives.  By permitting abortion only in life-threatening situations (and criminalising it in all other circumstances), it endangers women’s health. The existing medical guidelines are very ambiguous which causes confusion among medical professionals over how “risk to life” is defined.

Irish law undermines health care providers’ ability to provide essential medical information and services to their patients. Health care practitioners are often unable to treat their patients in accordance with international ethical standards and medical guidelines. Instead, they are forced into a situation in which they are complicit in human rights violations.  The state’s criminal law also has a “chilling effect” on health providers, intimidating and potentially deterring them from doing their jobs in the best interests of their patients.  Medical professionals interviewed for our report confirm this.

Isn’t abortion dangerous for women?

Amnesty International’s research and evidence from the World Health Organisation shows that abortion bans do not stop women and girls from having abortions. Instead, abortion bans lead women to have unsafe abortions, often in secret, which can put their health and lives at risk. The best way to safeguard women’s health is to ensure access to safe and legal abortion, as well as access to modern contraceptive methods and comprehensive sexuality education both in and out of schools that is evidence-based, non-discriminatory and promotes gender equality.

Studies have also found that abortion is safer than childbirth. For instance in a 2012 US study, the researchers concluded: “Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity [rate of illness] associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.”

What is abortifacient medication?

Having a medical abortion by taking abortifacient medication (sometimes called ‘abortion pills’) is a safe and internationally recommended option for terminating an early pregnancy . However, the criminalisation of abortion in Ireland means that women and girls are taking this medication without effective medical advice or supervision which could have serious health implications. And of course, women could also be prosecuted for having a medical abortion, as could anyone who assists them. While Amnesty is not aware of any cases where women in Ireland have been prosecuted to date, the ‘chilling effect’ of criminalising women who need medical care is well documented, including in our report. Criminalising abortion also perpetuates the stigma and discrimination experienced by women who need abortions.

What about a health professionals’ right to refuse to provide abortion services? (e.g. conscientious objection)

States are required by international human rights law to ensure that that conscience-based refusals of abortion care do not jeopardise women and girls’ access to abortion services. This includes making clear that those who object to providing abortion services have a duty to provide accurate information and make a timely referral to another health care provider who will offer the services. Health professionals must always provide care, regardless of their personal beliefs or objections, in emergency circumstances when the procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life or prevent serious harm, in cases of life-saving post-abortion care, or where a referral or continuity of care is not possible. A health professional’s right to refuse to provide abortions (sometimes known as ‘conscientious objection’) is linked to the right to manifest one’s freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. However, this right is not absolute – it cannot be allowed to result in violations of women’s or girls’ rights.

Isn’t abortion bad for women’s mental health? Don’t women regret their abortions?

There is no credible medical evidence to suggest that abortion causes women to experience emotional or psychological trauma. In a recent US study, considered to be the most rigorous examination of the issue in the USA, researchers followed nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions nationwide for five years. It found that women who accessed abortion did not experience more depression, low self-esteem or dissatisfaction with life than women who were denied abortions.

A separate study, featured in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that: “the rates of a first-time psychiatric contact before and after a first-trimester induced abortion are similar. This finding does not support the hypothesis that there is an overall increased risk of mental disorders after first-trimester induced abortion.”

The decision whether or not to have an abortion should rest solely with the woman herself, together with the medical professionals and loved ones she chooses to involve. Whether or not an individual woman regrets her abortion cannot be used as justification for denying the human rights of women and girls.

Is it a criminal offence to have an abortion in Ireland?

It is a criminal offence to have an abortion in Ireland, unless there is a “real and substantial risk” to the life of the pregnant woman or girl. Women and medical professionals could face a prison term of up to 14 years or a fine of up to €4,000 if they are found guilty of having or administrating an illegal abortion.

This includes the use of abortifacient medication (sometimes called ‘abortion pills’) bought online. Though this medication is safe, it should be taken with medical supervision which Irish law prohibits.  Ireland’s abortion law forces women to risk criminal prosecution simply to exercise their right to access abortion services.

Ireland’s abortion law does not stop women and girls from having or needing abortions, it simply forces them have to travel elsewhere for abortions, or to have potentially unsafe, illegal abortions in secret.

But women and girls aren’t actually prosecuted for having abortions in Ireland.

We do not know that women and girls will not be charged or prosecuted for having illegal abortions in Ireland, under Ireland’s Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013. Enforcement of the criminal law is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the DPP has not said that women and girls will not be prosecuted.

Regardless, criminalisation of abortion still violates women’s and girls’ rights even if the law is not rigorously enforced. A country’s laws demonstrate what the society deems to be acceptable.  By criminalising women for needing this essential medical care, Irish law stigmatises women and girls who terminate their pregnancies and the medical professionals who care for them.

The state’s criminal law also has a “chilling effect” on health providers, intimidating and potentially deterring them from fulfilling their medical and ethical obligations even where abortion is lawful, due to the perceived risk of prosecution if they get the balance wrong. The existing medical guidelines are also very ambiguous which causes confusion among medical professionals over how “risk to life” is defined.

Why is Amnesty calling for abortion to be decriminalised?

Ireland’s abortion laws treat women who need abortions (and the medical professionals who care for them) like criminals. It seriously violates women’s human rights and makes doctors complicit in these violations. Criminalising abortion stigmatises women. It has a ‘chilling effect’ on health professionals’ ability to do their jobs without fear of unreasonable prosecution.

Abortion must be decriminalised in all circumstances. Decriminalisation means removing the criminal sanctions (currently a prison term of up to 14 years or a fine of up to €4,000) which women and medical professionals face if found guilty of having or administrating an illegal abortion.

Decriminalising abortion does not mean unregulated abortion. International human rights law recognises that states can put reasonable abortion regulations in place. Abortion is the only medical procedure that is criminalised. It should be regulated like any other medical care.

Of course, the state must protect individuals from cases of medical malpractice.  Any medical practitioner suspected of breaching their ethical and legal obligations, including those who provide abortion services, must be investigated and held to account. This can be done through medical disciplinary procedures and the general criminal law.

Our poll found that 72% of people in Ireland favour the decriminalisation of abortion. 65% agree that classifying abortion as a crime adds to the distress of the woman involved. Interestingly, more than half of respondents did not know that having an abortion when the woman’s life is not at risk is a criminal offence. Of those personally opposed to abortion in all circumstances, 72% did not know that women could spent up to 14 years in prison for having an abortion.

Irish people voted for the Eighth Amendment in 1983. Shouldn’t Amnesty respect that democratic vote?

A state’s Constitution is no excuse for violating the human rights of women and girls. By putting the constitutional right to life of “the unborn” on an equal footing with the right to life of the pregnant woman or girl in contravention to international human rights law, the Eighth Amendment is at the heart of the grave violations highlighted in our report.

Neither public opinion nor any democratic process can be used as an excuse for the serious human rights violations caused by the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. As it happens, the majority of people in Ireland favour expanded access to abortion.

Do people in Ireland favour expanded access to abortion?

Repeated opinion polls have shown that people in Ireland favour expanded access to abortion. Across all ages, regions and demographic groups, there is overwhelming support for change. Access to abortion is no longer a divisive issue.

Our February 2016 Red C poll found that 87% favour expanded access to abortion and 80% would vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment. A full breakdown of our polling is available here.

Successive polls have demonstrated that on the issue of abortion, people in Ireland are way ahead of their political leaders and the prevailing media discourse. It is time to move beyond the myth of a divided society and legislate to respect the rights of women and girls.

How do Irish people feel about our abortion laws?

People in Ireland describe our abortion laws are cruel, inhumane, hypocritical and discriminatory.

Recently the UN Human Rights Committee in Mellet vs Ireland found that Ireland’s abortion laws caused cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The Irish Government did not dispute that finding, and it agreed to provide compensation and accessing to counselling for the harm done to Ms Mellet.

By forcing women to travel to access the medical care to which they have a human right, the Irish state shames, stigmatises and criminalises women and the medical professionals who care for them. 55% describe Ireland’s law on abortion as cruel and inhumane.

Ireland’s abortion laws also discriminate against women and girls. The near total abortion ban disproportionally effects certain women and girls: minors, survivors of sexual violence, those living in poverty (though you don’t need to be “poor” not to be able to afford an abortion), asylum seekers, women with health problems including mental health problems or those who are otherwise unable to travel. By denying access to abortion, Ireland discriminates against women and girls when they most need our support. 72% of people in Ireland believe that forcing women to travel for abortions unfairly discriminates against those who are unable to travel.

Ireland’s abortion law does not stop women from having or needing abortions, it simply stops them from having safe abortions and it limits abortion access to those who are able to travel abroad. 66% of people in Ireland describe our abortion law as hypocritical. Our laws create a two-tiered system where some women can circumvent the law while others are forced to continue with a pregnancy or resort to illegal and often unsafe means of accessing abortion, including the use of abortifacient medication (sometimes called ‘abortion pills’) bought online. Though this medication is safe, it should be taken with medical supervision which Irish law prohibits.

Many people say that abortion is wrong and that Amnesty is wrong to be campaigning for it. What do you say to those people?

As a human rights organisation, our mandate is to campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. While abortion might be a controversial issue for some, international human rights law is very clear. The right to sexual and reproductive health (including access to abortion) is well established as an integral part of the right to health.

The right to sexual and reproductive health  also exists within a number of  human rights (such as the rights to life, equality and non-discrimination, privacy and to be free form torture or other ill-treatment). The UN treaty monitoring bodies tasked with interpreting the content and meaning of rights enshrined in the core human rights treaties have provided detailed guidance on the right to access abortion services.

We will continue to work towards ensuring that the rights of women and girls all over the world (including in Ireland) are respected, protected and fulfilled. We cannot and will not shy away from campaigns that some find controversial.

Why is Amnesty campaigning for access to abortion? Why don’t you focus on prisoners of conscience and other issues instead?

Our mandate is to work on to fulfil the full spectrum human rights, including prisoners of conscience, refugee rights, abolishing the death penalty and ending the use of torture. Rights like women’s and girls’ health, sexual and reproductive rights are also human rights equally deserving of our attention. As it happens, an overwhelming majority of people in Ireland (87%) support our call for expanded access to abortion services in Ireland.

How can Amnesty campaign to abolish the death penalty when also advocating for access to abortion?

The death penalty and abortion are two different human rights issues.

The death penalty is when a person is killed by the state as punishment for a crime. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It violates the right to be free from torture, to which no exception is permitted. Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception.

Access to abortion implicates women and girls’ rights to life, health, privacy and to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment and freedom from discrimination. To deny access to abortion can violate these rights. Continuing a pregnancy that is a result of rape or incest, for example, can have serious implications for a woman’s mental and physical health. To deny access to abortion in this circumstance is a serious violation of a woman’s right to health and the right to be free torture or other ill-treatment.

Many people think that abortion is a sin. Don’t those people have a right to freedom of religion or belief?

Yes, everyone has a human right to freedom of religion or belief. This is a right Amnesty actively defends throughout the world.  However, one’s religious views or beliefs cannot be imposed on others to the detriment of their human rights. Most religious people agree with this view. Our poll found that 82% of those who describe themselves as religious do not believe that their views should be imposed on others.

Indeed, providing access to abortion is an essential component toward respecting women and girls’ right to freedom of religion or belief as it provides them with the choice on whether or not to terminate a pregnancy without forcing one particular religious view or interpretation on them.

By providing access to abortion in line with human rights standards, women and girls should be afforded the autonomy to make decisions about whether or not to continue a pregnancy, based on their own conscience. 56% of religious people also believe that looking at abortion from a human rights viewpoint is useful because it balances one’s right to freedom of religion with the rights of women who decide to have an abortion.

How is Amnesty’s campaign funded?

Amnesty International is independent of any political ideology, economic interest or religion. To ensure our independence, we do not accept funding from states for our campaigning work and we only accept funding from companies that have been carefully vetted. The vast majority of our income comes from our members and supporters in Ireland and around the world. In the interests of transparency, we publish our full audited annual accounts on our website each year.

Philanthropic foundations have always been an important source of funding for human rights work, both here in Ireland and globally. We only accept funding to support public education, research and campaigning work that aligns with our human rights objectives as decided by Amnesty International’s membership. In 2015, we applied for and received funding from the Open Society Foundation to part-fund our campaign on sexual and reproductive rights. This funding amounts to €137,000 over a two-year period. In 2016 this grant amounts to approximately €60,000, which represents approx 2.6% of our overall budget.