UN bodies clash over abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities

Disability committee says no guarantee whether impairments are fatal or not

Two influential United Nations bodies have disagreed sharply over whether abortion should be allowed in countries such as Ireland in cases where there are fatal foetal abnormalities.

The UN's Human Rights Committee has for years argued that women should have access to abortion in all cases where the "foetus suffers from fatal impairment".

However, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has recently objected to this view, in a paper replying to a list of recommendations made by its sister UN body.

Objecting to “fatal foetal impairments” being used as a specific ground for abortion, the disability committee said such an approach was risky given there was no guarantee as to whether or not a foetal abnormality was fatal.


“Even if the condition is considered fatal, there is still a decision made on the basis of impairment. Often it cannot be said if an impairment is fatal. Experience shows that assessments on impairment conditions are often false,” the committee stated.

In a major report on Ireland’s abortion regime in recent years, the committee on human rights said Irish women should not face restrictions on such grounds given the potential for physical and mental pain or suffering on the part of women.

Oireachtas committee

The issue of how fatal foetal abnormalities are to be dealt with in Irish hospitals has emerged as a hotly-contested issue in hearings before the Oireachtas committee which is examining the Eighth Amendment.

This week, parents who were diagnosed with severe or fatal foetal anomalies and were forced to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies, said they were left feeling “like medical refugees”.

A group advocating against allowing terminations in such cases is due to give evidence next week.

Responding to the developments at the UN, the Pro Life Campaign said the disability committee’s views were “welcome news” and helped draw attention to “huge” numbers of abortions taking place on disability grounds.

"That's why in countries like England, over 90 per cent of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are now aborted and the UN Human Rights Committee, along with some other international bodies, is standing by and letting this happen without any criticism that would make a worthwhile difference," said spokeswoman Cora Sherlock.

However, pro-choice campaigner, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said it was unhelpful to suggest that allowing abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities could "open the floodgates".

Mental health

"The same argument was made during debates over the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act on the grounds of mental heath. That simply hasn't happened," Mr Bacik said.

Dr Eilionóir Flynn, deputy director of NUI Galway’s centre for disability law and policy, said the disability committee’s concerns over the use of “fatal foetal impairment” as a specific ground for abortion seemed to be linked to the potential for differences in how it would be applied.

“I think this is due to their concern that such a provision might be interpreted very widely to allow for the abortion of foetuses with impairments which are not in fact fatal, especially in countries where access to abortion is limited,” she said.

However, she said she did not believe the committee wished to restrict access to abortion in general, as this was also a right of pregnant people with disabilities.

“Rather, I think the committee would support wider access to abortion, accompanied by education, awareness-raising and support, to ensure that pregnant people can make an informed choice, and that children born with impairments and their families have the support they need to live in the community with choices equal to others,” she added.

The views of the UN’s disability committee on the rights of persons with disabilities were in response to draft comments made by the UN’s Human Rights Committee the international covenant on civil and political rights.

The UN human rights committee cited Ireland as an example of where abortion should be available in cases where the foetus suffers from fatal impairment.

* This article was amended to correct an error

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent