Groundbreaking UN Decision: Ireland's Abortion Ban Is Cruel and Inhumane

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Groundbreaking UN Decision: Ireland's Abortion Ban Is Cruel and Inhumane

Ireland denied needed care to woman who was carrying fetus with fatal heart defect

Demonstrators march in Dublin to mark the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in 2015.  (Photo:  Sebastian Dooris/flickr/cc)

Ireland's restrictive ban on abortions subjected a woman to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and should be ended, a groundbreaking decision from a United Nations committee states.

The findings from the Geneva-based Human Rights Committee are based on the case of Amanda Mellet, who was denied access to an abortion in 2011. In November 2013, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint on her behalf.

Medical providers told the Dublin resident during her 21st week of pregnancy that her fetus had congenital heart defects, and would die in utero or shortly after birth. She was told she could either carry the fetus, which would likely die inside her, to term, or travel abroad, though no specifics regarding medical instructions were given, nor were medical providers abroad suggested.

After consulting with a family planning organization, she went to Liverpool to terminate the pregnancy. Just 12 hours after the medical procedure, still bleeding and weak, she and her husband had to return to Dublin because they could not afford to stay any longer, and did not leave with the baby's remains. Once home, the Irish hospital did not provide aftercare or bereavement counseling, as would have been provided had she suffered a spontaneous stillbirth. The remains were unexpectedly delivered to her three weeks later.

The UN committee states that, as a result of Irish law, Mellet was subjected to "conditions of intense physical and mental suffering," and her "suffering was further aggravated by the obstacles she faced in receiving needed information about her appropriate medical options from known and trusted medical providers."

The State's legal system "failed to adequately take into account her medical needs and socio-economic circumstance," and as such "constituted discrimination," the committee adds.

"Many of the described negative experiences she went through could have been avoided if the author had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of her own country and under the care of the health professionals whom she knew and trusted; and if she had been afforded needed health benefits that were available in Ireland, were enjoyed by others, and she could have enjoyed had she continued her non-viable pregnancy to deliver a stillborn child in Ireland," the ruling reads.

It states that Ireland must now provide full reparation, including compensation and psychological treatment, for Mellet. In addition, it says

the State party should amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its Constitution, to ensure compliance with the Covenant, including ensuring effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland, and take measures to ensure that health-care providers are in a position to supply full information on safe abortion services without fearing being subjected to criminal sanctions, as indicated in these Views of the Committee.

According to Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights, this marks a "landmark decision" that "sends the clear message that Ireland's abortion laws are cruel and inhumane, and violate women's human rights."

Echoing that reaction, Amnesty International called it a "groundbreaking decision" that "will advance women's rights in Ireland and beyond."

Hoctor added: "The Irish government can no longer ignore its responsibility to ensure women’s health. Ireland must now move swiftly to provide Amanda Mellet the justice she deserves and reform its abortion laws."

Mellet, for her part, said following the ruling, "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 and cry in. Subjecting women to so much additional pain and trauma simply must not continue."

A March 2016 Amnesty International/Red C poll on attitudes to abortion in Ireland found that the vast majority—87 percent—want access to abortion expanded, and overwhelmingly (72 percent) want it decriminalized.

Amnesty International describes Ireland's law as "one of the most restrictive in the world." As the Guardian explained:

In the Republic of Ireland, abortion is legal only if the woman’s life is deemed to be at risk, but there is no clear guidance on how to define that. Women and anyone who assists them face up to 14 years in prison for breaking this law. The eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution puts the fetus' right to life on an equal footing with the woman’s, and the provision of information about abortion services is also restricted, under legislation that criminalises any information by healthcare providers that “advocates or promotes” abortion.

According to the UK Department of Health, Mellet was one of over 4,000 women from Ireland who accessed abortion services in England or Wales in 2011.

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