State must respond to UN committee’s concerns
‘Long past time for safe and legal abortion services to be made available’
In its observations, the committee highlighted how the “highly restrictive” Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act fell short of meeting international human rights standards. The experts were particularly concerned at the harsh criminal sanction of 14 years’ imprisonment hanging over women and their doctors and the “lack of procedural clarity” for doctors in determining a risk to a pregnant woman’s life. The State must now accept the committee’s recommendation to “swiftly adopt” guidelines clarifying what constitutes a substantial risk to the life of a pregnant woman.
The committee asserted that the excessive scrutiny women with mental health problems face in accessing life-saving care under the legislation caused “further mental distress”. The UN body also expressed concern at the “strict restrictions” health providers face in giving women information on abortion and called on the State to make information available through wider channels and ensure that providers are not subject to criminal sanctions.
During its review the State affirmed that the “will of the people” prevented it from addressing these violations and bringing its abortion laws into line with human rights. When challenged on how its abortion laws were out of touch with the views of its population, the State conceded that the public had never been given the opportunity to vote for less restrictive laws.
Landmark caseNotably, the State failed to tell the committee that the recent restrictive legislation would not even have been enacted, had it not been for the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B and C v Ireland. In that landmark case, all 17 judges acknowledged that travelling abroad for an abortion constituted a significant psychological, physical and financial burden on A, B and C, and rejected the State’s attempt to discount the women’s well-documented hardships. The court was also clear that its door was open for another challenge to Ireland’s abortion laws.
The challenge for the State is now clear. It must adopt the committee’s recommendations and “revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risk to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality”.
Niall Behan is chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association