A Most Basic Right

A first-ever ruling from the UN’s principal human rights body calls for swift and comprehensive reform to Ireland’s merciless abortion laws.

At 21 weeks pregnant, when Amanda Mellet was told the fetus she was carrying would not live due to a fatal chromosomal anomaly, she was given an unconscionable choice: She could carry the pregnancy to term or leave the country to get an abortion.

Mellet was refused access to abortion services in Ireland as a result of the country’s restrictive abortion law, which prohibits and criminalizes abortion in every circumstance, except where there is a substantial risk to the life of a pregnant woman.

“How can it be justified that a pregnant woman must sneak over to England like a criminal to do what she feels is the most humane thing?” asks Mellet, whose story is at the core of a groundbreaking decision issued last week by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC).

In its ruling, the HRC—the UN’s legal authority on civil and political rights—unanimously and unambiguously agreed with Mellet and confirmed that Ireland’s abortion laws are cruel and inhumane, violate the rights of women living in the country, and flout international law.

The Center for Reproductive Rights brought Mellet’s case before the HRC in 2013, arguing that when Mellet was forced to leave Ireland to receive abortion care she needed, the government violated her basic human rights by subjecting her to severe mental suffering and anguish.

Due to Ireland’s restrictive laws, seeking abortion care abroad is a common enough experience for women that there is a euphemism for it: “traveling.” But the term hardly evokes the hardship, fear, and isolation such a journey can entail.

“We spent nearly a week in Liverpool,” remembers Mellet. “We were adrift in a strange city, wandering unknown streets with thoughts only of our loss, returning to an anonymous hotel room. I cannot put into words the extent to which having a baby who would not survive was made much more traumatic by the fact that I could not end the pregnancy in Ireland.”

In addition, Mellet also had to fly back to Dublin less than a day after the procedure—before she had recovered—due to financial strain, and then received inadequate medical care and a complete lack of bereavement counseling after returning to Ireland.

Last week’s ruling affirms that the psychological, physical, and financial distress that Mellet experienced by being forced to “travel” rose to the level of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and also violated her right to privacy. The Committee also determined that Ireland’s failure to provide the services that Mellet needed constituted discrimination.

The HRC’s decision directs the Irish government to now take swift action to remedy the serious harm Mellet suffered, and to make meaningful reforms to the country’s legal system to ensure other women in Ireland are no longer subjected to similar violations. The ruling marks the first time that, in response to an individual case, any international human rights court or committee has recognized that violations of women’s human rights are directly caused by the criminalization of abortion. As such, the ruling also alerts other countries around the world with similarly harmful laws of the international consequences of inaction.

“For too long, Ireland has been out of step with rest of Europe by continuing to deny women access to essential health services such as abortion and post-abortion care,” says Leah Hoctor, the Center’s regional director for Europe. “This is a landmark victory for human rights, and the Center and our partners in Ireland will not rest until we have ensured Ireland’s compliance with the ruling and have secured reparations from the Irish government on Mellet’s behalf.”

Mellet and her husband have worked hard to put the painful experience behind them, and she notes that the HRC’s ruling has done much to help this process.

“The decision not only vindicates my rights. It also serves to uphold the rights of many other women in Ireland who have faced and continue to face human rights violations under the current legal regime,” said Mellet in a statement after the ruling was issued.  “Hearing the Committee’s findings today does help in my own healing, but my most sincere hope is that it may assist Ireland’s government in finding the courage to make the necessary changes in law. I hope the day will soon come when women in Ireland will be able to access the health services they need in our own country, where we can be with our loved ones, with our own medical team, and where we have our own familiar bed to go home to.”

Each year, at least three to four thousand women in Ireland are forced to travel abroad to obtain abortion care. In 2012, a woman in Galway died from an infection when doctors repeatedly refused abortion care after she arrived at the hospital while miscarrying. In March 2014, the Center filed a second case with the HRC on behalf of Siobhán Whelan, another woman who was forced to leave her country to obtain abortion services after she learned the fetus she was carrying had a fatal fetal impairment called Trisomy 13. That case is still under review.

The Irish government must report back to the HRC within 180 days regarding what measures it has taken or will take—including changing the country’s constitution—to comply with this week’s decision. The HRC will also continue to scrutinize Ireland’s adherence to the decision until the Committee determines that the government has successfully complied.

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