Abortion laws again under fire from UN human rights body

Pregnant Irish woman Amanda Mellet’s case gives this UN opinion greater legal weight

International pressure on Ireland's abortion laws has been ratcheted up another notch with this latest opinion from the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.

The UN body has form in this area, having previously carpeted Irish ministers and officials over our abortion laws, and many other issues, at sessions devoted to scrutinising Ireland’s human rights record at its headquarters in Geneva.

The most recent of these took place last year, when Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and her staff appeared for the committee's fifth periodic review of Ireland's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Members bluntly told the Irish delegation we were in breach of international human rights by denying women who had been raped, who had a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly, and whose health was at risk access to abortion in Ireland.


So there is nothing particularly surprising about the committee’s latest finding: that a woman carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality was subjected to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment due to Ireland’s abortion ban.

The difference is that this opinion is founded on a single tragic case rather than forming part of a blanket judgment not anchored in specific personal circumstances. Its emotional ballast and legal weight is commensurately greater.

Amanda Mellet, who took the case, was in her 21st week of pregnancy in November 2011 when she learned her foetus (the word used in the opinion) had congenital heart defects and would die in the uterus or shortly after birth.

Genetic condition

The condition involved is trisomy 18, also known as Edwards’ syndrome, a serious genetic condition that causes most affected babies to be miscarried or stillborn.

“Of those that survive to birth, around half will die within two weeks and only around one in every five will live at least three months,” according to the NHS Choices website.

“Around one in every 12 babies born with Edwards’ syndrome survive beyond one year, and they will live with severe physical and mental disabilities. Some children do survive to early adulthood, but this is very rare.”

The Rotunda Hospital, where Ms Mellet received her scan, acted in accordance with existing laws by informing her of her options, namely, to carry to term or to "travel". She spent €3,000 on a termination in Liverpool and returned to Ireland within hours.

The torment experienced by Ms Mellet during this time, where the anguish of an adverse diagnosis was compounded by the necessity of foreign travel, is outlined in the opinion from the committee.

Ireland ratified the international convention 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.

In the past, some rulings made against Ireland – such as in relation to the Offences Against the State Act – have been ignored.

Similar violations

In its ruling, the committee says Ireland is “under an obligation” to offer Ms Mellet an effective remedy and to take steps to prevent “similar violations” occurring in the future.

“To this end, the State party should amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its Constitution, to ensure compliance with the Covenant.”

There is a provision for another State to take a complaint against Ireland for flouting the convention, but the real impact of the UN opinion is to increase the political pressure for change on abortion law.

The Government is committed to holding a constitutional convention on the issue within six months of its formation, an approach dictated by the variety of views within the partnership administration.

However, many on the Opposition benches, and possibly some backbenchers, see this approach as too slow. A further attempt at a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is seen as inevitable.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

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