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Ireland: Clarify and Reform Abortion Laws and Regulations

Status Quo Incompatible With Human Rights Obligations and European Court Ruling

(London, January 10, 2013) –Irish legislators should take decisive action to safeguard in law the right of women and girls to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy, and explore further reforms to the countries’ near total ban on abortion, Human Rights Watch said today. The Irish Human Rights Commission should advise the law makers on how current restrictive laws violate women’s human rights and put the lives and health of women and adolescent girls at risk. 

The Joint Committee on Health and Children in the Oireachtas (Irish houses of parliament) is holding hearings this week to discuss government action to comply with the 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment in A, B, Cv. Ireland. In addition, the Irish Human Rights Commission is holding a separate review on this topic as well as the broader question of Ireland’s international human rights obligations in the area of abortion.

“First and foremost, the government needs to ensure the effective access of women and girls to the abortion services to which they already have a legal right,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “But a meaningful assessment of how Ireland respects the rights of pregnant women and girls in crisis means going further.”

In a 10-page submission to the Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch discussed the immediate need for reform to comply with the ECtHR judgment, and gave an overview of the main human rights concerns with Ireland’s current abortion policy regime.   

Abortion is currently illegal in Ireland in almost all circumstances, except where the woman or girl’s life is in danger, and patients and service providers face potential penalties of up to life in prison for procuring an abortion.

Human Rights Watch’ s 2010 report “A State of Isolation” details the ways in which current restrictive 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 as of 2010 (as opposed to a situation where a pregnancy may have been terminated as a secondary consequence of another medical intervention).

The refusal of successive governments to provide adequate guidelines ensuring access to abortion, even in the limited circumstances contemplated by Irish law, means women and girls living in Ireland are compelled to travel outside the country to access a basic medical procedure. Service providers told Human Rights Watch that significant numbers of women and girls are not able to travel, and therefore are forced to carry on their pregnancies or undergo an illegal abortion. This group includes women and girls who cannot afford to travel, some immigrant and asylum seeking women, and women too ill to travel.

In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of A, B, C 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. In January 2012, the Irish government established an Expert Panel to “elucidate” the implications of the ABC case “and to recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment.” In late November 2012, the Expert Panel published its report, setting out several options for the government to address.

The tragic death of a woman denied an abortion in Ireland separately stirred the abortion debate. 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. According to a recent survey in Ireland, 85% of those polled said they supported legislation in these circumstances, 10% would not support it and 5% said they did not know.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to ensure that Ireland’s human rights obligations are central when assessing what effective and accessible procedures are established and, in accordance with Ireland’s human rights obligations, that the life and health of the woman or girl is the primary consideration in determining procedures and safeguards for realizing access to the right to lawful abortion.

“The Irish government has to take responsibility and stop the effective outsourcing of their human rights obligations to other countries” Reidy said. “And this is the unprecedented moment to do it.”

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