(London) – The tragic death of a woman denied an abortion in Ireland should catalyze the Irish government to fulfill its international human rights obligation to ensure access to safe and legal abortions. Savita Halappanavar, 31, who was 17 weeks pregnant, died from septicemia on October 28, 2012 at a hospital in Galway after she was refused an abortion and miscarried.
By permitting women who are entitled to obtain a legal abortion to do so, Ireland would be making progress on its pledge during its recent successful bid to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen human rights within Ireland, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Irish government knows full well what is required to meet Ireland’s human rights obligations with respect to access to abortion, but has chosen to shirk that responsibility,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The spotlight that one family’s terrible loss of life has shone on this failing could help to end this unacceptable, damaging, and sometimes lethal state of affairs.”
Halappanavar went to University Hospital Galway with pregnancy-related pains on October 21, and when she began to miscarry sought an abortion but was refused. She suffered a miscarriage and several days later died of blood poisoning. Three inquiries into Halappanaver’s death – by the national Health Service Executive (HSE), the state Coroner’s office, and the hospital itself – are underway. Abortion is illegal in Ireland in almost all circumstances, except where the woman’s life is in danger, and patients and service providers face potential penalties of up to life in prison for procuring an abortion.
In 1992 the Irish Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant woman or girl whose life was in danger could legally obtain an abortion in Ireland, but successive governments have failed to legislate to permit women who are entitled to an abortion to access one. In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of ABC v Ireland, confirmed that the inability of girls and women whose pregnancies are life-threatening to access abortions in Ireland is a violation of Ireland’s obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch’ s 2010 report, “A State of Isolation,” details the ways in which current abortion policies violate Ireland’s international human rights obligations. No obstetrician or physician interviewed for the report was able to cite a single case in which an abortion had been legally performed in Ireland. The refusal of successive governments to provide adequate guidelines ensuring access to abortion, even in the limited circumstances contemplated by Irish law, means women living in Ireland are compelled to travel to access a basic medical procedure. Service providers told Human Rights Watch that significant numbers of women are not able to travel, and therefore are forced to carry on their pregnancies or undergo an illegal abortion. This group includes women who cannot afford to travel, some immigrant and asylum seeking women, and women too ill to travel.
“Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws have meant women facing crisis pregnancies and serious health risks may be denied full access to health care, accurate information, and objective and complete advice on their medical options,” Reidy said. “Abortion is an emotive issue in Ireland as elsewhere, but facing a difficult debate is no excuse for the government to maintain an abusive status quo that violates women’s fundamental rights.”
In January the Irish government established an Expert Panel to “elucidate” the implications of the ABCcase “for the provision of healthcare services to pregnant women in Ireland, and to recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment.” On November 13, Irish Prime Minster Taoiseach Enda Kenny informed the Dail (parliament) that Health Minister James O’Reilly had just received the report from the Expert Panel, but indicated no timetable of when he would present the report to the Cabinet.
On the same day that the health minister received the Expert Panel report, Ireland was elected to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. During its campaign for council membership, Ireland made a commitment to the full promotion of human rights in its domestic policy and to uphold and strengthen human rights at home. Listing the core international human rights treaties to which Ireland is a party, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Irish government stated its “determination to achieve full respect for human rights in practice.” However, over the past decade various Irish governments have ignored multiple appeals by UN human rights bodies to address the right to abortion amongst women’s health rights.
In July 2005, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which is responsible for monitoring compliance with CEDAW, reiterated its “concern about the consequences of the very restrictive abortion laws [in Ireland].” In 2008, echoing the call it first made in 2000, the UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ireland is party, expressed its regret that Ireland had failed to make any progress to ensure that women were not forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies. It urged the government to “take measures to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies so that they do not have to resort to illegal or unsafe abortions that could put their lives at risk … or have abortions abroad.”
In 2011, the UN Committee against Torture noted that the “risk of criminal prosecution and imprisonment facing both the women concerned and their physicians” may indicate a breach of the Convention against Torture. The Committee said it was “concerned further that, despite the already existing case law allowing for abortion, no legislation is in place and that this leads to serious consequences in individual cases, especially affecting minors, migrant women, and women living in poverty.” It urged Ireland to enact legislation to clarify procedures for accessing abortion, in conformity with the Convention.
“To win a seat at the Human Rights Council, the Irish government committed itself to fully promoting human rights at home,” Reidy said. “Ireland’s first act as a new council member should be to redress this urgent gap in women’s human rights that previous governments have sadly failed to do, and that has had deadly consequences.”