New report on women’s health criticises Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws

European Commissioner for Human Rights focuses on laws in Republic and North

A new report published by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has questioned Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

The report, ‘Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe’, examines women’s health within the EU and looks at abortion services.

The new research complied by Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks used Ireland as an example of a country with highly restrictive abortion laws.

The authors of the report say the laws can have a broad range of “physical, psychological, financial and social” impacts on women, with broader implications for their health and well-being.


Over four-fifths of all Council of Europe member states have legalised abortion on a woman's request, with 36 out of 40 of that total having a time limit ranging from 10 to 24 weeks, according to the report.

“In Ireland, abortion is legal only to avert a substantial risk to a woman’s life,” the report states.

The report notes that in Northern Ireland, the sole exceptions are for risks to a woman's life or health.

The report also highlights the “severe” criminal sanctions in place for women who undergo abortion outside the above-mentioned criteria: “In Ireland, for example, the prescribed penalty for women can amount to 14 years in prison, while in Northern Ireland it can extend to life imprisonment.”

The legal consequences mean women “who resort to clandestine abortion are often afraid to seek post-abortion care if complications arise, with potentially severe consequences for their health,” the report said.

“This fear is often well founded – in some of these jurisdictions women who have had illegal abortions, or family members who assisted them, have subsequently faced criminal prosecution and penalties.”

The report highlighted two court cases taken against the Irish State by two women who had received diagnoses of fatal foetal impairment from their doctors.

In two recent decisions, Mellet v. Ireland and Whelan v. Ireland, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) addressed what it described as the harmful impact that highly restrictive abortion laws can have on women.

“Both applicants were women in Ireland who had received diagnoses of fatal foetal impairment from their doctors in the course of their pregnancies. Following routine tests they were each informed that the foetus they were carrying would die in utero or would not survive long after birth.

“On receiving the each woman found the prospect of continuing her pregnancy unbearable.”

However, the report states, they were informed by their doctors that in Ireland carrying the pregnancy to term were their only option and “to end the pregnancy, they would have to seek abortion care in another country”.

Both women arranged to travel with their husbands to hospitals in the United Kingdom.

In both cases, the women had to leave the remains of their stillborn babies behind them for cremation and later received the ashes in the post.

When the women brought their cases to the Human Rights Convention, the court ruled that suffering could have been avoided if the women had not been prohibited from terminating their pregnancies in the familiar environment of their own country and under the care of health professionals whom they knew and trusted.

The report has been published days before the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment is due to make recommendations on the State's abortion laws.