Abortion is, once again, the issue that will not go away

State has in the past ignored UN rulings but the shame factor is significant internationally

Leo Varadkar: it will almost certainly fall to the incoming taoiseach to decide when and in what form to proceed with a referendum on abortion. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The United Nations again excoriates Ireland for failing to provide abortion to a woman whose baby had a fatal foetal abnormality; details emerge of a court case in which a girl who was deemed suicidal and wanted abortion was instead sectioned for a time; new figures show that thousands of Irish women are still travelling yearly to terminate their pregnancies in the UK.

Abortion is, once again, the issue that will not go away, as this week’s headlines show. And with the likelihood of another referendum inching ever closer, the volume dial in the debate is going up.

More than 150,000 Irish women have travelled to England for an abortion in the last four decades, but the vast majority remain just numbers on a list.

In contrast, the battle for hearts and minds in the forthcoming referendum will be fought over hard cases, experienced by women willing to share their experiences with the wider public. One such case is that of Siobhán Whelan, the 40-year-old mother of one who was forced to travel to Liverpool for a termination after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality in 2010.


There is nothing very surprising about the finding of the UN Human Rights Committee in her case. Following closely on the lines of the very similar Amanda Mellet case, the committee ruled that Whelan's human rights were violated by the failure of Ireland to allow her to have an abortion in her own country.


Neither is it particularly surprising that it ordered the Government to pay her compensation and to get its house in order by changing the law on abortion.

Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as far back as 1989 but has never incorporated it into domestic law. So while the committee’s opinion has legal standing, it is not enforceable domestically.

The State has in the past ignored rulings made against Ireland, but the shame factor is significant internationally.

While the Government contested the case, it is likely now to offer Whelan compensation for the trauma she experienced. It can also point to the progress that is being made in moving toward a referendum. This will see the report of the Citizens’ Assembly being given to Government within the next month, followed by a three-month period during which an Oireachtas committee will draw up recommendations.

It will almost certainly fall to incoming taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose position on abortion has changed repeatedly during his political career, to decide when and in what form to proceed with the referendum, probably next year.