Policies Designed to Sabotage Access Both at Home and Abroad
January 28, 2010
Women in need of abortion services should, as a matter of international law and – frankly - human decency, be able to count on support from their government as they face a difficult situation. But in Ireland they are actively stonewalled, stigmatized, and written out.
Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

(Dublin) - The Irish government actively seeks to restrict access to abortion services and information both within Ireland and for its residents seeking care abroad, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, "A State of Isolation: Access to Abortion for Women in Ireland," details how women struggle to overcome the financial, logistical, physical, and emotional burdens imposed by restrictive laws and policies that force them to seek care abroad, without support from the state.  Every year thousands of women and girls travel from Ireland to other European countries for abortions.

"Women in need of abortion services should, as a matter of international law and - frankly -human decency, be able to count on support from their government as they face a difficult situation," said Marianne Mollmann, women's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But in Ireland they are actively stonewalled, stigmatized, and written out."

In Ireland, abortion is legally restricted in almost all circumstances, with potential penalties of penal servitude for life for both patients and service providers, except where the pregnant woman's life is in danger, but there is little legal and policy guidance on when, specifically, an abortion might be legally performed within Ireland. As a result, some doctors are reluctant even to provide pre-natal screening for severe fetal abnormalities, and very few - if any - women have access to legal abortions at home. The government has indicated that it has no current plans to clarify the possible reach of the criminal penalties.  The government does not keep figures on legal and illegal abortions carried out in Ireland, or on the number of women traveling abroad for services.

"Irish law on abortion is in and of itself an affront to human rights," Mollmann said. "But it is made worse by the fact that even those who may qualify for a legal abortion in Ireland cannot get one due to deliberately murky policies that carry an implied threat of prosecution."

But women also face more active sabotaging of their health decisions by the state.  Throughout the last two decades, the Irish government has used injunctions to prevent individuals from traveling abroad for abortion. As recently as 2007, a 17-year-old girl in the custody of the Health Services Executive had to go to court to get permission to travel to the United Kingdom for an abortion.

Organizations that provide information on how to access abortion services abroad face restrictions on when and how this information can legally be conveyed, under threat of penalties. And the government does nothing to prevent "rogue" agencies that represent themselves as providers of information about abortion from circulating blatantly misleading and false information.

"Women should not have to make decisions about their health and lives based on lies," Mollmann said.  "Yet the law leaves ‘rogue' agencies unregulated and threatens honest service providers with fines or worse if they help a distressed woman make a phone call to a clinic abroad."