UN Human Rights Committee tells Ireland to make legal abortion more widely available

by Michael Nugent on July 24, 2014

The United Nations Human Rights Committee today told Ireland that it should:

  • Revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality;
  • Swiftly adopt the Guidance Document to clarify what constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of the pregnant woman; and
  • Consider making more information on crisis pregnancy options available through a variety of channels, and ensure that healthcare providers who provide information on safe abortion services abroad are not subject to criminal sanctions.

Last week the Committee was questioning Ireland about its duties under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Majority votes cannot deny human rights

During that session, Ireland told the UN that the reason that it denies pregnant women their abortion rights under the Covenant was because they are expressing the will of the people as expressed through referendum.

The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that this reason was totally unacceptable.

It said that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament, and that the whole point of international human rights law is to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

The Committee invited Ireland to withdraw that as a reason for not fulfilling its Convention duties, and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald did withdraw it.

However, just two days later, Tanaiste Joan Burton was asked a question about this in the Dail, and she replied that “As a democrat, the Deputy must recognise that the people voted for the eighth amendment to the Constitution.”

With the publication of this report, the Irish Government should recognise, as the Justice Minister did in Geneva, that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament or in a referendum.

Specific UN concerns about irish abortion law

The Human Rights Committee also expressed the following concerns about the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion in Ireland owing to article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and its strict interpretation by the Irish state.

  • The criminalization of abortion under section 22 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, including in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and serious risks to the health of the mother, which may lead to up to 14 years of imprisonment, except in cases that constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of a pregnant women;
  • The lack of legal and procedural clarity concerning what constitutes “real and substantive risk” to the life, as opposed to the health, of the pregnant women;
  • The requirement of an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals for pregnant and suicidal women leading to further mental distress;
  • The discriminatory impact of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act on women who are unable to travel abroad to seek abortions;
  • The strict restrictions on the channels via which information on crisis pregnancy options may be provided to women and the imposition of criminal sanctions on healthcare providers who refer women to abortion services outside the State party under the Regulation of Information (Services outside the state for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act of 1995; and
  • The severe mental suffering caused by the denial of abortion services to women seeking abortions due to rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or serious risks to health (arts. 2, 3, 6, 7, 17, 19 and 26).
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