Ireland in breach of human rights law on abortion

Referendum would be needed to put into effect UN body’s proposals – Fitzgerald

A constitutional referendum would be required to bring Ireland's abortion legislation into line with international human rights law, a Government delegation told the United Nations yesterday.

The delegation offered no defence to concerns from members of the UN's Human Rights Committee that, despite new abortion legislation, the State was still in breach of human rights obligations.

Ireland also said it had “no solution” to the fact Irish women had to “bear the full cost” of travelling abroad for abortions they might be entitled to under international law.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald led the Irish delegation over two days, as the committee conducted its fifth periodic review of Ireland's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


Robust questioning

She responded to robust questioning about the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, as several committee members said it left Ireland 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.

“It will require another constitutional referendum to capture all of the circumstances outlined by the committee,” said Ms Fitzgerald. Article 40.3.3, inserted into the Constitution in 1983, guarantees to vindicate, as far as is practicable, the equal right to life of the unborn and the pregnant girl or woman.

Cost of travelling

In response to equality concerns about Irish women having to "bear the full cost" of travelling for abortion and its impact on poor women, girls in care and asylum seekers, Mary Jackson, principal officer at the Department of Health, said: "That is a situation we have no solution to at present . . . We have not been challenged to make a change to that in legislation."

The Pro-Life Campaign said the committee had a “worryingly shallow understanding of human rights”. “The rights of the unborn were not raised even once by any member of the committee. Given how gravely lacking in fairness the proceedings were, the HRC has lost any credibility to lecture Ireland on abortion,” a spokesman said.

On symphysiotomy, committee chairman Sir Nigel Rodley and Ireland rapporteur Yuval Shany from Israel were critical of the recent compensation scheme for survivors, offered without liability.

There was “nothing about accountability in anything we have heard”, said Sir Nigel.


Although the UN Human Rights Committee cannot compel Ireland to accede to its requests, the Government is unlikely to ignore them.

The 18-member body, which monitors member states’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has pulled no punches. It was at times excoriating of the State, most notably its treatment of women.

The committee also scrutinised the direct provision system, non-Christians’ rights, prison overcrowding, the merger of key human rights bodies, the treatment of the Traveller and Roma communities, and, mistreatment of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. It is due to publish its concluding observations next week.

The covenant is a major human rights instrument setting out fundamental human rights which signatory states are obliged to protect. The committee has the legal right to investigate member states which fail to protect these rights.

Ireland is very protective of its reputation as a State committed to human rights.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times