Every year, as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws, thousands of women in the country must travel abroad to obtain legal abortion services. With one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, Ireland outlaws the procedure in almost all circumstances except to save the life of a pregnant woman.
Offering only the bare minimum protection for women’s lives, the law does nothing to protect the health and well-being of women who decide to end a pregnancy that is not life-threatening. With nowhere to turn, these women must travel abroad to safely and legally end their pregnancies.
The Law’s Chilling Effect
Siobhán Whelan, an Irish woman the Center represented in a case before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, has experienced Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws firsthand.
At 21 weeks pregnant, doctors informed Whelan that the fetus she was carrying had a fatal impairment and would die before birth or not survive for long after. When she received the news, Whelan was told by her doctors that due to Irish law she would not be allowed to end the pregnancy in Ireland. She would need to travel abroad for the procedure, but received no information about where she could go or what an abortion in another country would entail.
Of the experience Whelan recalls:
“When I received the diagnosis I was told that 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 care was inhuman.”
Making the journey to the UK for her termination took a huge emotional toll on Whelan. As much as she has tried to put what happened behind her, she knows she will never forget what a demeaning experience it was to have to leave her own country to access health services.
Advocating for Change
In 2014, the Center filed a case on Whelan’s behalf before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing that denying her abortion care violated her basic human rights and was cruel and inhuman.
The UN Committee recently ruled in favor of Whelan, finding that prohibiting her from accessing abortion services in Ireland was in fact a violation of her human rights. The Committee held that Ireland must remedy the harms Whelan suffered and reform its laws on abortion to ensure other women do not continue to face similar violations. The Committee instructed Ireland to legalize women’s access to effective, timely abortion procedures in the country.
Of the case Regional Director for Europe Leah Hoctor says:
“Siobhan Whelan bravely sought justice for the harms she and other women in Ireland have endured. Today, the UN Human Rights Committee upheld her claims and told Ireland, for the second time, that its abortion laws are cruel and inhuman. Women’s health and well-being are harmed when they have to travel for abortion services. Political will to pursue meaningful law reform is imperative, the Irish government and Oireachtas (the Irish legislature) must show leadership and act now to enable legal change.”
Of the decision, Whelan commented:
“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.”
The Second Case of Its Kind
Whelan’s story is not unique. Her case is the second the Center has won in Ireland before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the first being that of Amanda Mellet who was also denied access to an abortion after being diagnosed with a fatal fetal impairment. In June 2016, the Committee held that Mellet’s human rights had been violated and instructed Ireland to not only compensate her but also provide her with psychological support, and reform the country’s abortion law. In November 2016, Mellet received compensation from the Irish government and was offered psychological counseling.
In July 2016, the Irish government moved ahead with its commitment to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to make recommendations for reforming Ireland’s Constitution, which places “the right to life of the unborn” on an equal footing with the right to life of pregnant women, and on future legislation on abortion. The Citizens’ Assembly recently concluded its work and voted to completely overhaul Ireland’s abortion law, including amending the constitution and legalizing abortion on a woman’s request without restriction as to the reason in the first trimester.
If the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations for meaningful and comprehensive legal change are followed, it would allow women to access abortion services in Ireland, and ensure that their health and well-being are no longer undermined.
At the Center, we will continue advocating on behalf of women like Siobhán Whelan and Amanda Mellet to ensure that all women can obtain the reproductive health care they need — no matter where they live.