In 2011, Amanda Mellet was denied an abortion in Ireland after learning her pregnancy had a fatal foetal impairment. She travelled to the UK to undergo the procedure. She endured 36 hours of labour and, because she couldn't afford to stay overnight, travelled home still bleeding. A few weeks later she received her daughter's ashes by courier.
Represented by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, Amanda filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee arguing that Ireland's restrictive abortion laws violated her human rights.
In a damning decision, the committee found that Ireland’s laws prohibiting abortion subjected Amanda to “intense physical and mental suffering”; that Ireland’s criminalisation of abortion caused her shame and stigma, and her suffering was intensified by the barriers preventing access to information about her healthcare options; that Amanda had been subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and that her right to privacy had been violated.
The committee found that women in Ireland who continue with their pregnancies after a fatal foetal impairment diagnosis receive public healthcare and health insurance cover. In contrast, women such as Amanda who decide not to continue with their pregnancies must bear the full financial, emotional and physical burden of Ireland's abortion ban. This, the UN committee found, is discriminatory. It called on the Irish Government to act promptly and effectively to redress the harm she suffered, and to reform its laws so no other woman would ever have to face a similar ordeal.
Last week Mick Wallace TD introduced a Bill to permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. During a debate on that Bill, Minister for Health Simon Harris made a heartfelt apology to Amanda Mellet. It was an important moment. We hope it indicates that the Government fully accepts the UN decision, and will act upon it without equivocation.
It should go without saying that Amanda deserved better than to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; that women living in Ireland must be treated with dignity and respect. And yet for some, albeit a tiny minority, the treatment imposed on Amanda by this State is acceptable. They stand over laws that violate the human rights of women and girls, which brutalise and criminalise them. Some even celebrate them.
Human rights law
I accept that many of those opposed to abortion do so because of deeply held principle, and I respect their right to voice their objection. Many believe that life begins at the point of conception and from that point forward, the foetus is entitled to the same protection as a born woman. However, that view has no basis in international human rights law. Yet it is enshrined in our Constitution.
The Eighth Amendment is the root cause of Amanda’s brutal treatment and the human rights violations experienced by women and girls in Ireland every day.
The purpose of international human rights law – a system of treaties and supervisory committees created by states, including Ireland – is to ensure that all people are afforded a minimum level of protection of a defined set of human rights. These human rights supersede domestic laws, which are often based on ideologies and prejudices. Therefore, respect for human rights can never be subject to the vagaries of public opinion or politics. And a state’s constitution can never be an excuse for human rights abuses.
At it happens though, abortion is no longer a divisive issue in Ireland. In February, we conducted a national Red C poll on attitudes to abortion. It found 87 per cent of people want expanded access to abortion. Across all regions, demographics and social groups, people in Ireland want change. Just 5 per cent are personally opposed to abortion in all circumstances, and of those, half would still vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Sadly we don’t see this level of consensus reflected in the media discourse. Too often discussion of abortion is derailed by aggressive and personalised condemnation of those seeking progress. This approach serves only those who want to close down public discussion and maintain the status quo. It also does real damage.
Imagine you are journalist trying to do your job, objectively and responsibly, but you know that every word is pored over looking for an opportunity to charge bias, and the inevitable deluge of abuse. Imagine you are a politician, wanting to navigate this issue and legislate effectively, while fearing abuse or even pickets outside your home.
Most importantly, imagine you are a woman or girl who has had an abortion, or who needs one. Imagine that, in the media’s telling of a story much like yours, space is given to groups asserting that you should be forced to continue with that pregnancy. Imagine hearing an endless back-and-forth over the binding nature of UN decisions, rather than an emphatic demand that the human rights violations found must be ended.
Political support for change
Today the Dáil will vote on Mick Wallace’s Bill. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. There is now very considerable political support for change. The international human rights framework Ireland helped create is also clear. The Eighth Amendment needs to go, and a legal and healthcare framework put in its place that respects women’s and girls’ rights.
The Government has decided to convene a citizens’ assembly to consider the Eighth Amendment. We are not convinced this is necessary. However, if the Government proceeds with this plan, it must mandate the assembly to expand access to abortion, not maintain the status quo. It must ensure that women’s human rights, health and medical best practice are key benchmarks and guiding principles for the assembly. It must reassure many who are rightly cynical about this move, given the failure to progress important recommendations made by the last constitutional convention.
Last week Minister Simon Harris said, “Ireland’s history shows that it has been in the past a cold and uncaring place for women.” Now he and his colleagues in Government must act to ensure that we finally consign that shameful fact to history.
Colm O'Gorman is executive director of Amnesty International Ireland