Delays in accessing abortions in Ireland are violating women’s rights, says expert

Major violations 'embedded' in legislation must be addressed in review, expert states

Major human rights violations which are “embedded” in the 2018 abortion legislation must be addressed as part of a forthcoming review, a human rights expert has warned.

Máiréad Enright, reader in feminist legal studies at the Birmingham Law School and co-founder of Lawyers for Choice, was speaking at the publication of research into women's experiences of abortion services since the commencement of the 2018 Termination of Pregnancy Act.

Under the Act, abortion is legally available on request up to 10 weeks gestation from a GP and in a hospital between 10 and 12 weeks. It is permitted thereafter in cases where the fetus would die within 28 days of birth, or where there is a real and substantial threat to the woman’s life or health.

The Act stipulates that the law be reviewed after three years, and the Department of Health has said an independent expert will be appointed to do so in the coming weeks.


Series of issues

The research, published on Thursday by the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), finds a series of issues in the legislation’s operation.

Among these are delays in accessing abortions – which ARC says are caused by the uneven provision of services across the State and the mandatory three-day delay between requesting an abortion and getting one; a lack of information about how to access abortion services; and a lack of information about what an abortion entails – particularly the level of pain involved for those who have early medical abortions.

Ms Enright said delays to accessing legal abortions, created by legislation, processes or procedures, amounted to breaches of rights.

“One is a violation of the right to a private life and that covers things like bodily autonomy and self-determination, and the other is freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” she said.

Citing a 2010 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights in the A,B and C vs Ireland case, she said: "If you legalise abortion, that right to abortion must be practically available to those who are entitled to it.

“You must put the procedures, laws, guidelines and processes in place that make that service accessible in practice.”


She said the difficulties women faced once their pregnancy approached the 10-week point – where they would be referred to a hospital – meant abortion was not always available in practice “when it should be”.

She said the fact many women with a fatal fetal diagnosis still had to travel for an abortion meant Ireland was still inflicting "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" on these women as it had on Amanda Mellet, who won her case against Ireland at United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2016.

Dr Mary Favier, former president of the Irish College of General Practitioners, said just a third of GP practices provided abortion services, while just 10 out of the 19 maternity units did.

“The biggest barrier [to legal abortion] is the lack of provision in a local hospital. In so much of the west, midwest and northwest, we GPs don’t have a hospital backup,” she said.

“If we are to campaign about anything it’s that it’s just not acceptable, 2½ years later, to say it’s okay somehow that only 10 of our 19 maternity units provide... It’s just not okay.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times