Government will not give UN commitment to change abortion laws

Amanda Mellet offered €30,000 over finding she was subjected to inhuman treatment

The Government will not give the United Nations a commitment to change Ireland's abortion laws when it makes a formal reply to it next week on the case of Amanda Mellet.

The Government confirmed on Wednesday that it had offered €30,000 in compensation to Ms Mellet, who successfully made a complaint to the UN about Ireland’s abortion laws.

The UN Human Rights Committee ruled last summer that Ms Mellet had suffered “discrimination” and “cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment” due to Ireland’s ban on abortion, and required that the Government offer her compensation, counselling and also change its laws to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, such as Ms Mellet had experienced in her pregnancy.

However, the Government will not make a commitment to change the law, but will instead describe the process it has initiated, beginning with the Citizens Assembly and moving on next year to an Oireachtas committee.


The Government cannot promise to change Ireland’s laws on abortion as required by the UN, as a constitutional amendment passed in a referendum would be necessary before any legislative change takes place. A decision on a referendum will only be made when the Oireachtas committee reports, expected at the end of 2017.


Legal sources say the payment to Ms Mellet and the UN decision in her favour do not create a precedent that can be relied upon in the Irish courts.

Minister for Health Simon Harris met Ms Mellet, her husband and her legal team on Tuesday evening and made the offer of compensation as well as counselling. Labour's health spokesman Alan Kelly, who along with Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher had lobbied Mr Harris on Ms Mellet's behalf, also attended.

The meeting took place just one week before a deadline imposed by the UN committee on Ireland to respond to it and to Ms Mellet.

Ms Mellet was in her 21st week of pregnancy in November 2011 when she learned her foetus had congenital heart defects and would die in the uterus or shortly after birth.

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 who survive, most will die soon after birth, though there are are cases where they survive longer.

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.

Human rights

Ms Mellet complained that the state’s ban on abortion had violated her human rights under international law, and the committee agreed with her last June.

Ireland ratified the the international convenant 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.

Mr Kelly described the Government’s response to the UN judgement as a “game changer” in terms of Ireland’s response to women in similar situations to Ms Mellet.

Pro-choice advocates, including the National Women’s Council, the Irish Family Planning Association and Amnesty International also welcomed the Government’s move to award compensation to Ms Mellet.

Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign said people undergoing crisis pregnancies should be treated with the utmost respect and compassion at all times.

However, she questioned the Government taking direction from a UN committee which has a track record “of refusing to criticise countries like England where babies who survive abortions are left to die without receiving any loving care from hospital staff”.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times