‘Perpetrators’ of symphysiotomy should be punished, UN says

Human Rights Committee calls for revision of new abortion legislation in Ireland

The "perpetrators" of symphysiotomy should be punished and prosecuted, the United Nations has said.

In observations on Ireland's human rights record, published this morning, the UN's Human Rights Committee also calls for a revision of new abortion legislation and of the Constitution to ensure women who are pregnant as a result of rape, incest or who have a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly have access to abortion if they choose it.

The recommendations are included in the committee’s “concluding observations” on Ireland’s appearance before it last week.

The eight-page document comes following robust questioning of an Irish Government delegation in Geneva last week. The delegation, led by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, was questioned on Ireland's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).


The ICCPR is a key human rights instrument guaranteeing fundamental rights, and signatory states are monitored on compliance with it.

The UN sets out its continuing concerns in 19 areas, including Travellers’ rights, gender equality, mental health services, corporal punishment, asylum seekers and abortion.

On symphysiotomy, which was brought to the committee’s attention for the first time last week, it says: “The State party should initiate a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into cases of symphysiotomy, prosecute and punish the perpetrators, including medical personnel, and provide an effective remedy to the survivors of symphysiotomy for the damage sustained, including fair and adequate compensation and rehabilitation, on an individualized basis.

“It should facilitate access to judicial remedies by victims opting for the ex-gratia scheme, including allowing a challenge to the sums offered to them under the scheme.


On abortion, it reiterates its “previous concern regarding the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion owing to article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and its strict interpretation by the State party”.

In particular it is concerned at the criminalisation of abortion under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, in instances where a woman is pregnant as a result of rape, incest, is diagnosed with a fatal foetal anomaly, and, where there is a serious risk to her health. It is also concerned at a “lack of clarity” as to what constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of a pregnant woman.

The committee is concerned about “the requirement of an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals for pregnant and suicidal women leading to further mental distress”.

It calls on the Government to “revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution” to enable women who would be entitled to an abortion under international human rights law, to access one here and also to swiftly clarify what constitutes a real and substantive threat to a woman’s life.

On asylum seekers’ rights, the Committee is “concerned at… delays in the processing of asylum claims and prolonged accommodation of asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres which is not conducive to family life.

“It also regrets the lack of an accessible and independent complaints mechanism in Direct Provision centres” and calls on the State to ensure the duration of stay in Direct Provision centres is as short as possible.

It calls for the introduction of an accessible and independent complaints procedure for people living in Direct Provision.

Among its other calls are for a referendum to amend Article 41.2 of the Constitution to remove reference to women’s duties in the home and “render it gender neutral”; that a “prompt independent and thorough investigation be established” into abuses in mother and baby homes, and Magdalene laundries; that the non-consensual use of psychiatric medication and electroshock treatment be generally prohibited; that corporal punishment be banned; that slopping out in prisons be ended “as a matter of urgency”; that Traveller ethnic minority status be recognised; and that non-denominational schooling be provided.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times