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Ireland: Abortion issue must be clarified by Irish government without delay

Ireland must ensure that its domestic law and policy on access to abortion is in line with international human rights law, Amnesty International said today.

The organisation – which has written to Irish Minister for Health James Reilly - is concerned the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar exposes a gap in Irish law and policy over the most basic human right - a woman’s right to access abortion where her life is at risk.

This right has already been established as a constitutional principle by the Irish Supreme Court. Amnesty also expressed its concern about the lack of clarity as to whether or not a specific legislative framework is required.

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Ireland, said:

“International human rights law is clear about the right of a woman to access a safe and legal abortion where her life is at risk.

“Successive Irish governments have failed in their duty to provide the necessary clarity on how this right is protected and vindicated, leaving women in Ireland in a very vulnerable position. Government must offer this clarity without further delay.”

Marianne Mollmann, senior policy advisor at Amnesty International, added:

“Ireland has been subject to criticism from international human rights bodies for its failure to bring domestic legislation into line with international human rights principles, including a very clear ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.”

The European Court of Human Rights has stated the need for a legislative or regulatory regime providing an accessible and effective procedure for women to access a lawful abortion in Ireland when their lives are threatened by their pregnancy.  

The UN’s Review of Ireland’s human rights record from October last year, contains repeated calls from UN member states to bring Ireland’s domestic law into line with international human rights obligations, and at the very least regulate access to life-saving abortions.

In 2011 the UN Committee Against Torture urged Ireland to clarify the scope of legal abortion through statutory law.

Amnesty has noted the establishment of an investigation into the case of Savita Halappanavar, but urged the Irish government to ensure that it is effective and transparent.

Among the questions which Amnesty believes pertinent to the investigation are:

  • Whether existing Irish Medical Council protocols were followed and did they provide sufficient guidance compatible with Ireland’s constitutional position?

  • Whether the patient suffered any form of discrimination or harassment because of her ethnicity, religion, or otherwise?
  • Was this death ultimately preventable?

In 2007 Amnesty members adopted a policy on abortion, as part of its policy on sexual and reproductive rights. The policy was informed by the growing use of rape and forced pregnancy in conflict situations in parts of Europe and Africa, and the documented link between illegal abortion and maternal mortality.

The policy is in line with current international human rights law.

Amnesty International believes all countries should:

Ensure the provision of full information on sexual and reproductive health to women and men;

Provide legal, safe and accessible abortion in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest
and risk to a woman's life, or grave risk to her health;

Repeal laws that permit the imprisonment or imposition of other criminal sanctions on women who have had or sought to have an abortion, and repeal laws that seek to criminalise medical practitioners who provide information or abortion services and operate within reasonable medical limitations;

Provide access to quality medical services for the management of complications arising from all abortions, legal or illegal.

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