The United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has made a landmark decision regarding abortion rights in Ireland. On June 9, it issued a statement calling on Ireland to “amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its Constitution… [to ensure] effective, timely, and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland, and take measures to ensure that healthcare providers are in a position to supply full information on safe abortion services [to patients].”
The Council’s ruling is incredibly significant, as Ireland has some of the strictest abortion legislation in the world. Ireland’s 2013 Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act makes it a crime to obtain an abortion except in cases where a woman is at immediate risk of death as a result of pregnancy, whether due to medical complications or possible suicide.
Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws have led thousands of women to seek alternative or secretive means of abortion or to flee the country in order to obtain the procedure; women denied proper treatment have been subjected to imprisonment and even even more have died. Additionally, under Ireland’s Abortion Information Act, healthcare providers are allowed to inform patients about the circumstances under which they could legally obtain an abortion in Ireland or overseas. However, it is illegal for healthcare providers to say anything to patients that could be construed as the promotion or encouragement of abortion.
The action taken by the UNHRC on the issue was the result of a case brought forward by an Irish woman named Amanda Mellet. In 2011, Mellet was denied access to an abortion despite being informed by doctors that the fetus was sure to die before or shortly after birth due to congenital defects. Mellet was forced to travel to the UK to have the procedure–a trip that separated her from loved ones and sources of support, denied her the chance to undergo and recover from the procedure in a familiar environment, and cost her €3,000. The UN Committee declared that Mellet was subjected to “intense physical and mental suffering” as a result of the incident, and that her basic human rights had been violated.
The court, recognizing that Ireland is a signatory to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, asserted that Ireland’s abortion laws were in violation of Articles 7 and 26 of the international law, and that Mellet’s basic human rights to equality before the law and the avoidance of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment had been violated as a result of Ireland’s laws. It called upon the country to take immediate action to reform its abortion laws in order to better protect the dignity, health, and human rights of its people.
Though UN rulings are technically binding under international law, they can be difficult to enforce. Time will tell if Ireland’s government acts upon the decision made by the UNHCR, or if it continues to protect its restrictive abortion legislation on religious and moral grounds, as it has in the past.