New call for Northern Ireland abortion reform, as U.N. rules Ireland violates human rights

“The Northern Ireland public want change. Today the United Nations agreed with them.” – Patrick Corrigan

A renewed call for a change to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law has been made in the wake of a ground-breaking decision by the UN Human Rights Committee that Ireland’s law prohibiting and criminalizing abortion violated the human rights of a woman who had a diagnosis of fatal foetal impairment.

The UN Committee’s ruling said Ireland’s laws prohibiting and criminalizing abortion violated the rights of Amanda Mellet, a dual citizen of Ireland and the USA, as it denied her an abortion despite her receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly in 2011.

It is the first time that an international human rights body has found a state in violation of its human right obligations for criminalizing and prohibiting abortion.

A similar ban on termination of pregnancy on the basis of a diagnosis of fatal foetal impairment is in force in Northern Ireland.

Amnesty International has renewed its call for the Northern Ireland ban to be lifted and for women to be permitted to have safe, lawful abortions in cases of fatal foetal impairment diagnoses or where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland programme director of Amnesty International, said:

“Today’s United Nations ruling underlines what we have consistently said to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly – our archaic abortion law must change. Every day that the Assembly fails to act means a further violation of the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland.

“The Northern Ireland public want change. A recent poll found that seven in ten people want to see the law on abortion brought into line with international human rights standards. Today the United Nations agreed with them.”

Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe – life imprisonment both for the woman undergoing an unlawful abortion and for anyone assisting her. That sentence even applies in cases where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest, or in cases of fatal foetal impairment.

In December the High Court in Belfast found that Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches the European Convention of Human Rights. However, to date the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have refused to reform the region’s abortion law.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, said:

“Today’s ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee is ground breaking for Ireland, and has far reaching global consequences. The prohibition, and by extension criminalization, of abortion in and of itself has been found to violate human rights. It is discriminatory and subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The UN Committee found Ireland’s abortion laws subjected her to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and discrimination, in violation of Articles 7 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also found a violation of Article 17 on the right to privacy. It said that Ireland subjected Ms Mellet to “intense physical and mental suffering.” It also called on Ireland to “amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its Constitution, to ensure compliance with the Covenant, including effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland, and take measures to ensure that health-care providers are in a position to supply full information on safe abortion services without fearing being subjected to criminal sanctions.”

The Committee found that Ireland’s criminalization of abortion caused Ms Mellet shame and stigma and that her suffering was further aggravated by the obstacles she faced in getting information about the appropriate medical options.

The UN Human Rights Committee can hear cases brought by individuals against their governments to determine whether laws violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a key human rights treaty.

Notes to Editors:

In 2011, during the course of her pregnancy Amanda Mellet discovered that the foetus had a fatal foetal impairment. She knew she could not continue with the pregnancy and asked her doctors for an abortion. However, because Ireland outlaws abortion in almost all circumstances, she was forced to travel to the United Kingdom to end her pregnancy. 

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed the complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee in November 2013 on Ms Mellet’s behalf.

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