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5th March 2017, 13:35:29 UTC

Human rights organisation supports calls for ‘on request’ model in early pregnancy

Amnesty International addressed the Citizens’ Assembly this afternoon calling for the urgent reform of Ireland’s abortion laws which are among the most restrictive in the world. The organisation set out how international human rights law requires that women and girls have safe and legal access to abortion, as well as outlining key requirements of a legal model which would be human rights compliant. A human rights compliant abortion framework is one that ensures safe and timely access to abortion services both in law and practice, and for all women and girls. The organisation set out why legislation is necessary to not only permit expanded access to abortion, but to also ensure and compel the delivery and availability of abortion services.

“Women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights are a core part of the international human rights legal framework. Women have a right to control their own fertility, to determine the number and spacing of their children, and to not be forced to continue with a pregnancy against their wishes. We are calling on the Assembly to recommend a full repeal of the Eighth Amendment; full decriminalisation of abortion; and the introduction of a human rights complaint framework for access to and information about abortion,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

The right to access abortion is well established under international human rights law. Women and girls have a right to access abortion at a minimum, when the pregnancy poses a risk to their physical or mental health, when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where there is a diagnosis of severe or fatal foetal impairment.  In making their recommendations, Amnesty International called on the Assembly to consider the emerging consensus among public health and human rights experts on best practice models for human rights compliant abortion provision.

The organisation set out how legislation framed around ‘minimum grounds’ to access abortion will not guarantee effective access. The approach taken in the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act illustrates this important point. Both the Act and the Department of Health Guidance that followed are narrow and restrictive. They fail to provide practical assistance to medical professionals in grappling with how exactly they are to assess when a pregnancy poses a “real and substantial” risk to the life of a woman or girl.

“There is little evidence internationally that restrictive abortion laws, which provide only for narrow, minimum grounds, can ever realise the human rights of women and girls, even for the women and girls who supposedly have a legal entitlement to an abortion. Countries such as Poland, Zimbabwe and New Zealand have legalised abortion on the ‘minimum grounds’ but have been repeatedly called upon by international treaty monitoring bodies to ‘liberalise’ their ‘restrictive’ and ‘convoluted’ laws. In other words, these laws simply do not go far enough to ensure the rights of women and girls.

“It is unlikely that adding further ‘grounds’ to the current law would facilitate meaningful access even on the grounds required under human rights law. Evolving international human rights law standards, international public health evidence and the experience of other countries shows that providing access to abortion on request during early pregnancy would provide meaningful access on the grounds required under international human rights law and would therefore be a human rights compliant approach,” said Colm O’Gorman.

Beyond early pregnancy, UN experts and treaty bodies are clear that abortion must be provided later in pregnancy in certain circumstances, such as where the woman’s health is at risk, she is pregnant as a result of sexual violence, or where there is a severe or fatal foetal impairment. States may regulate abortion in later stages of pregnancy by applying reasonable restrictions on abortion services, such as gestational limits. However, such restrictions must not be absolute. Many countries have no gestational limits for the minimum human rights grounds.

There are distinct risks in legislating for a ground of sexual violence. International experience is that this often requires women to almost prove they were raped, often denying them or delaying abortion. Access on general health grounds avoids such risks Conscience-based refusal must also be regulated so it does not jeopardise women’s and girls’ rights. Individual health care professionals – not institutions  – may decline to provide or participate in any health service to which they have a conscientious objection, including abortion services. They have a duty to make a timely referral to another health care provider who will offer the services. However, conscience-based refusal is not unlimited and specifically cannot be exercised in emergency situations.

“In order to properly understand the Eighth Amendment, we need to view it and Ireland’s abortion laws in the context of the historical suppression and control of women’s sexuality and reproduction. The Eighth Amendment was part of a broader social and political context in which the state and religious institutions have subjected women and girls to strict, punitive social controls around their sexuality and reproduction. Stereotypes about women’s roles in society and their sexual conduct were also violently enforced by the State and religious institutions through the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. We need to be truly free to look at abortion by today’s standards, which is in terms of women’s and girls’ human rights. We need to support women to make the decisions about their bodies, health and lives,” said Colm O’Gorman.

“Amnesty International has tentatively welcomed the Citizens’ Assembly process as an opportunity to have a meaningful national conversation about abortion. Current media and political commentary suggests that abortion is a controversial and deeply divisive issue. This is not the case. Independent polling commissioned by Amnesty International in February 2016 found that 80% of people in Ireland would vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, either outright or if legislation placing reasonable restrictions on abortion were put in place. The overwhelming majority of people in Ireland – across all regions, age groups and demographics – favour expanded access to abortion. We today called on the members of the Citizens’ Assembly to recommend a full repeal of the Eighth Amendment, full decriminalisation of abortion, and the introduction of a human rights complaint framework for access to and information about abortion. It is long past time that the Irish state fully respected the human rights of women and girls,” said Colm O’Gorman.

Watch our address to the Citizens’ Assembly


You can read our address to the Citizens’ Assembly below:

Read the address

Notes to editor:
In our 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, including their rights to health, equality and non-discrimination, privacy, and freedom from torture or other ill-treatment. The withholding and denial of abortion-related information to women as a result of the 1995 Regulation of Information Act further violates their human rights, including the rights to information and freedom of expression. It can also impact women’s right to health by causing delays in their identifying and accessing services. A copy of the report is available here.

The organisation’s submission to the Assembly summarises the harm and human rights violations caused by Ireland’s criminalisation and prohibition of abortion. A copy of the submission is available here. (PDF)

The Amnesty International/Red C Research & Markets poll was conducted in February 2016 to establish a deeper understanding of public attitudes to Ireland’s laws on abortion. The poll’s complete findings are available here.