Irish abortion law violated woman’s human rights, UN says

Siobhan Whelan forced to travel to UK for abortion after fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis

Tests in the National Maternity Hospital confirmed Siobhan Whelan’s baby suffered from Trisomy 13 (Patau Syndrome), which she was told was ‘incompatible with life’. Photograph: The Irish Times

A United Nations committee has found Ireland violated the human rights of a woman who had to travel to Britain for an abortion after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality.

The UN human rights committee has told the State to pay compensation to the woman, Siobhán Whelan, and to provide psychological treatment to her.

It also says Ireland needs to prevent similar violations of the rights of women by changing its laws on abortion.

Leah Hoctor, regional director at the Centre for Reproductive Rights: “The Government and Oireachtas must show leadership and act.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the decision was being reviewed by his officials and a formal submission would be prepared. He said he wanted the issues of termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities addressed through a referendum next year.


This is the second time the committee has found against Ireland in a case taken by a woman who was denied access to abortion services following a diagnosis of fatal foetal impairment.

Last year, the Government agreed to pay Amanda Mellet €30,000 compensation after the UN body found her rights had been violated.

In the Whelan case, published on Tuesday, the committee has again given Ireland six months to provide information about what measures it plans to take to give effect to its ruling.

Ms Whelan (47), established she had suffered a “high level of mental anguish” as a result of the actions and omissions of the State, which violated the prohibition in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, according to the ruling.


In a statement, she said she was very pleased with the decision and called on politicians to show courage by calling a constitutional referendum on abortion.

“In taking this case, my hope was to help bring about a change in our laws so that when faced with the tragic news of a fatal foetal impairment women would have a choice to end the pregnancy in Ireland and not be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or to travel out of our country to access health care services like I had to.”

The Government, in its submission, denied there was any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or discrimination, or that the State was responsible for any act of “infliction”.

It arguments were rejected by the committee, which said Ms Whelan was in a highly vulnerable position after learning that her much-wanted pregnancy was not viable.

Her physical and mental situation was exacerbated by the prevailing laws in Ireland and by the treatment she received from some health care providers.

Mr Harris commended Ms Whelan for coming forward despite the very personal toll involved. “There can hardly be a more difficult situation for a woman who is pregnant to face than to be told by her doctor that her unborn child is not fully healthy and well, and is not likely to survive.”

“It is important now that the Special Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment commence its work to examine the recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly and that we have a Referendum in 2018.”


The committee’s decision was welcomed by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, which filed the complaints on behalf of Ms Whelan and Ms Mellet.

"Siobhán Whelan bravely sought justice for the harm she and other women have endured as a result of Ireland's abortion laws," said Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe of the global organisation.

"The UN Human Rights Committee has now upheld her claims and told Ireland, for the second time, that its abortion laws are cruel and inhumane.

"Women's health and wellbeing are harmed when they have to travel for abortion services. Political will to enable meaningful law reform is now imperative. The Government and Oireachtas must show leadership and act."

Ms Hoctor said although her organisation has not filed any other cases to the UN, it was “not unlikely” that other women might choose to take a case against the Government on similar grounds.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.