For the second time in the last year, the UN Human Rights Committee has found that Ireland’s law prohibiting and criminalising abortion violated the human rights of a woman. In its decision made available today, it ordered that Ireland redress the harm it caused to Irish woman Siobhán Whelan, including by reforming its abortions laws to prevent similar human rights violations from occurring to other women. This echoes the same Committee’s June 2016 decision in Mellet v. Ireland.
Ms Whelan was forced to travel to the UK for an abortion in 2010, due to the almost total prohibition of abortion in Ireland. The UN Committee has found that Ireland’s abortion laws violated Ms Whelan’s rights, including her right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and her right to privacy and equality.
The Committee found that Ireland had subjected Ms Whelan to a “high level of mental anguish” which amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The Committee found that the criminalisation of abortion in Ireland caused her shame and stigma, and this was one of the factors that exacerbated her “physical and mental situation”. It found that her suffering was further aggravated by the obstacles she faced in receiving information she needed, and that health professionals did not provide her with clear and detailed information which disrupted the provision of medical care and exacerbated her distress.
The Committee further found that Ms Whelan’s right to privacy was violated as the state’s denying her access to abortion “constituted an intrusive interference in her decision as to how to best cope with her pregnancy”. It also found that she was denied access to medical services that she needed on the basis of her sex which amounts to gender discrimination. The Committee rejected the government’s attempts to justify Irish law. It stated that the balance the state “has chosen to strike between the protection of the foetus and the rights of the women … cannot be justified“. It refused to accept the government’s argument that the legal framework can be excused as it balances moral and political considerations.
“This decision shows how abusive and intolerable Irish law is. Just yesterday, Ireland’s abortion laws made international headlines when a story emerged that an adolescent girl was detained under mental health legislation rather than provided with an abortion. Now, yet another woman harmed by Ireland’s abortion laws had to go the UN to have her suffering acknowledged and her human rights vindicated. How many more will have to follow before the Irish Government lives up to its international human rights obligations? Today’s ruling is yet another reminder of the urgent need to schedule a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from Ireland’s Constitution. It comes just seven weeks after the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the Eighth Amendment be removed and abortion be expansively provided. Amnesty International’s She is Not A Criminal report found that the Eighth Amendment is the root cause of the serious human rights violations experienced by women and girls in Ireland. It is long past time for the Irish government to allow people in Ireland an opportunity to have their say in a referendum,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director with Amnesty International Ireland.
International human rights law requires an abortion framework that ensures safe and timely access to abortion services for all women and girls both in law and in practice. Evolving international human rights law standards, international public health evidence and the experience of other countries shows that providing access to abortion on request at least during early pregnancy would provide meaningful access on the grounds required under international human rights law. This is what the Citizens’ Assembly recommended by a large majority in April. It further recommended access to abortion later in pregnancy for socio-economic reasons, when the woman’s health is at risk, she is pregnant as a result of rape, or where there is a severe or fatal foetal impairment. This framework would substantially meet the minimum requirements of international human rights law. However, abortion must also be fully decriminalised.
“The Government must respond promptly and fully to the Committee’s instruction that it redress the harm to Ms Whelan, including by reforming its abortion law. Last December, the Government told this Committee that the Citizens’ Assembly process was a core part of its implementing the Mellet ruling. Since then, the Assembly has set out a comprehensive roadmap for abortion law reform. There can be no more excuses and no more delays. Every day in Ireland, similar human rights violations are happening to other women and girls. It is time for the government to schedule a referendum.
“Given how the Committee rejected its arguments, the government must no longer pretend that it can justify Ireland’s cruel abortion law. As Ms Whelan’s response to the state’s arguments points out, people in Ireland clearly want change. They deeply respect and value human rights. Our 2016 independent Red C poll found that eighty per cent are aware that women and girls have a human right to access abortion. Eighty seven per cent were in favour of expanded access to abortion. Indeed, a majority of people in Ireland considered our near total abortion ban to be cruel, inhumane and discriminatory.
Access to abortion is not a particularly controversial or divisive issue. The outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly further underlines that on abortion, people in Ireland are far more considered than the dominant political or media discourse would suggest. When provided with all the information and evidence of international best practice, recommending access to abortion on request in early pregnancy and on protected grounds thereafter is the logical and compassionate conclusion,” said Colm O’Gorman.
The Center for Reproductive Rights filed the complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2014 on Ms Whelan’s behalf. The Government has been instructed by the Committee to provide Ms Whelan with an effective remedy, which along with compensation, must involving amending its abortion law. It has 180 days to provide the Committee with information about the measures it has taken to give effect to this decision. The Committee’s ruling echoes the decision made in the Amanda Mellet case which was published in June 2016. In November 2016, the Irish Government accepted the Committee’s finding and agreed to pay compensation and provide counselling services to Ms Mellet.
“Finally, we are acutely aware of the bravery and determination shown by Siobhán Whelan in taking this case. We call on all who might comment upon this decision to properly recognise the scale of the suffering she was forced to endure as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws,” said Colm O’Gorman.
Notes for editors:
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.
Amnesty International’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 at www.amnesty.ie/poll.