UN Severely Critical of Irish Laws on Abortion

Ireland was recently represented by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald at the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) in Geneva.

The Irish State is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Committee hearings were held on 15-16 July to assess Ireland’s compliance with our obligations under the Covenant. By ratifying the Covenant the Irish state is bound to comply with its Articles, and to make any changes recommended to ensure our compliance.

Several Irish civic society groups, including the Abortion Rights Campaign, were also invited to the Committee where they read submissions and were questioned by Committee members with regard to Ireland’s abortion legislation.

Unfortunately, the UN Committee was critical of the Irish state for failing to protect the health and human rights of women under several important headings.

The Committee shared the serious concerns expressed by Irish pro-choice groups that last year’s Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act is inconsistent with our obligations under international human rights law. The Committee also expressed concerns that women are still criminalised under the 2013 legislation, and that Ireland is failing to protect the health, life, and human rights of women in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. It believes that the 3-doctor panel system to assess a woman’s right to abortion constitutes ‘mental torture’. The committee was also ‘disappointed’ that Ireland has no plans to remove Article 40.3.3 from the constitution.

During the hearings, the state’s representative Ms. Jackson admitted that Ireland is discriminating against women who cannot afford to travel to access services legally available elsewhere. Asked by Prof. Flinterman what Ireland might do to rectify this she replied “We have no solution to that.” This response is wholly inadequate, and betrays a worrying lack of regard for the human rights women in Ireland that should be rectified as soon as possible. (Professor Flinterman’s contribution can be viewed here.)

The Committee Chairperson also drew attention to the historical issues involving abuses of human rights, including the Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries, and child abuse in state care institutions. In relation to the Survivors of Symphysiotomy, the Chair reminded attendees of Article 7 of the covenant, which reads “No-one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular no-one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation. ”

This Article obliges Ireland to not just adequately redress the wrongs done to the women who had the horrific procedure enforced on them, but also to set about finding a resolution to ‘ the problem of accountability, the accountability for assault, and worse. The issue that remains for the state party to consider is what it is going to do about accountability, accountability for its own responsibilities, accountability for its failure to monitor what others have been doing, and the responsibility of others for committing abuses that the state might well be able to think of as crimes. And the accountability dimension is missing in everything that we’ve heard so far.’


A video of the closing remarks of Committee Chair Nigel Rodley can be viewed here.


A recent poll on thejournal.ie news website shows that almost one-in-four, or 79%, of respondents are in favour of another referendum to allow for more widely available abortion in Ireland. Almost 6000 people have already voted in the poll. You can add your voice here.

Several other recent polls also show that up to 80% of Irish adults are in favour of the availability of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or where a woman has been a victim of rape or incest. The Irish Family Planning Association has compiled the findings of many recent polls, which can be read here. The Committee drew attention to these polls as evidence that our legislation is out of touch with public opinion. At each referendum since the Eighth Amendment of 1983, the Irish people have rejected proposals which would have further restricted the very limited access to abortion available in Ireland

The Irish State was given a week to make a written reply to the UN findings, and the Committee made its final observations and recommendations on July 24th. The recommendations conclude that

‘ The State party should :

a)   Revise its legislation on abortion, including its constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risk to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality;

b)   Swiftly adopt the Guidance Document to clarify what constitutes a “real and substantial risk” to the life of the pregnant woman; and

c)   Consider making more options on crisis pregnancy available through a variety of channels, and ensure that healthcare providers who provide information on safe abortion services abroad are not subject to criminal sanctions. ‘

In the light of these findings and recommendations, Galway Pro-Choice believes it is incumbent upon all Irish elected representatives to ensure that our state does all in its power to comply with our binding international obligations. Ireland is rightly proud of its membership and contributions to the United Nations, and it would be a shame if that record were to be sullied by a lack of action with regard to the protection of the human rights of women in Ireland. The necessary changes to our legislation should be instigated as soon as is practically possible.


Galway Pro-Choice therefore believe that elected representatives should support the following proposals

  1. Remove the criminalisation and possible 14 year prison sentence from the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, 2013.
  2. Review and reform the 2013 Act to ensure that no article under it can possibly lead to undue ‘mental torture’ to women in an already vulnerable position.
  3. Extend, as widely as possible, the provisions of the Act to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape, incest, and to protect the health of women.
  4. Support any calls for a referendum to remove Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution.
  5. Call for a full public inquiry into the historical practise of symphysiotomy in Irish hospitals, and to ensure that those who may have been responsible for illegal acts of assault and torture are held accountable before the law.
  6. Ensure that no woman is denied access to medical services legally available outside this state due solely to inability to pay for such services. Women in such circumstances should, like any other person in medical need, be able to avail of the National Treatment Purchase Fund programme operated by the Department of Health.

Galway Pro-Choice will be contacting all local elected representatives to call for their support for such measures. We will keep you informed of any replies.

As we and other pro-choice groups have been saying all along, women in Ireland cannot be guaranteed equal access to health until Article 40.3.3 of the constitution is removed.  A campaign to call for a referendum on its removal will begin in September. We would encourage all those who believe in the right to choose to get involved. You can start by signing the Abortion Rights Campaign petition calling for a referendum, and sharing it online.

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