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U.N. Committee: Criminalization of Abortion in Ireland Violates Woman's Human Rights

New Decision Marks Second Time the U.N. Human Rights Committee Calls for Abortion Law Reform in Ireland

(PRESS RELEASE) The United Nations Human Rights Committee has just ruled for the second time that Ireland’s abortion laws subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This new decision recognizes yet again that prohibiting abortion violates women’s human rights and calls on Ireland to reform its laws.

The U.N. Committee ruled in favor of Siobhán Whelan, who was denied access to abortion services in Ireland following a diagnosis of a fatal fetal 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. The Committee instructed Ireland to legalize 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 U.N. 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.

Said Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“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 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 Irish government and Oireachtas must show leadership and act.”

In 2010, Siobhán Whelan learned during the course of her pregnancy that there was a fatal fetal 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 Irish government paid compensation to Ms. Mellet and offered her access to psychological support services. In its response to the Committee regarding law reform it reported on the creation of the Citizens’ Assembly and its mandate to recommend a roadmap for law reform. In March 2017 the Committee took note of the Assembly’s establishment but decided to continue its scrutiny of the Mellet case as law reform remains outstanding.

In March 2017 the Committee took note of the Assembly’s establishment but decided to continue its scrutiny of the Mellet decision.

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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.

When I received the diagnosis I was told I would have to continue with the pregnancy, since Ireland’s abortion laws do not allow you to end the pregnancy even in these circumstances. If I wanted to end the pregnancy I would have to travel to another jurisdiction. This to me was very wrong and I knew that the suffering I endured because I had to travel to access health care was inhuman.

I believe that women and couples must be given the best possible care at home at such a difficult time in their lives, including if they decide to terminate the pregnancy, and that there should be equal access to good quality information and care by hospitals countrywide.

The Human Rights Committee has found that what happened to me was a human rights violation. It has recognised that Ireland’s abortion laws can cause women intense suffering violating our most basic human rights.

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.

We have waited a long time for legal change. 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.

I would like to request that the media respect my wish for privacy for myself and my family at this time.” 

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Background:

Ireland’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive in Europe and the world. Abortion is permitted only when there is a risk to the life of a pregnant woman. In every other circumstance abortion is a serious crime. Since 1983, Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution has placed “the right to life of the unborn” on an equal footing with the right to life of pregnant women. The Constitution also explicitly recognises that women are entitled to leave the country to access legal abortion services in other countries. Because of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, every year thousands of women travel to access abortion services in a foreign country.

On 9 June 2016, in a groundbreaking decision, the U.N. Human Rights Committee determined that Ireland’s prohibition and criminalization of abortion violated Amanda Mellet’s human rights.  The Center for Reproductive Rights had filed a complaint on her behalf before the Committee in 2013, arguing that Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws violated her basic human rights by subjecting her to severe mental suffering and anguish. In its decision the Committee outlined that Ireland was obliged to redress the harm Ms. Mellet suffered by providing compensation and psychological support services to Ms. Mellet and by ensuring law reform to legalize abortion in order to prevent similar human rights violations from occurring in the future. In November 2016 the government paid compensation to Ms. Mellet and offered her psychological support services. It reported to the Committee that it had established the Citizens Assembly to address the matter of law reform and to recommend to the Oireachtas a pathway for a Constitutional referendum on Article 40.3.3 and legislative change on abortion.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee is an independent expert body that oversees states’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding international treaty ratified by Ireland in 1989. Under the Covenant, the Committee is charged with a dual mandate. First, under the First Optional Protocol to the Covenant, a separate binding treaty ratified by Ireland in 1989, to receive individual complaints from victims of violations, to adjudicate the matter, and issue a decision as to whether a violation occurred. Siobhán Whelan’s complaint was submitted in accordance with the procedure under the First Optional Protocol. Second, to conduct periodic reviews of state reports on implementation of the Covenant. Following such periodic reviews of Ireland in 2008 and 2014 the Committee issued recommendations to Ireland recommending reform of its abortion laws.

 

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