As readers will know by now, the UN Human Rights Committee today held that Ireland’s abortion law violated Amanda Mellet’s human rights under the ICCPR. The foetus she was carrying was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. Irish law criminalises abortion except as a last resort to save the pregnant woman’s life, and thus compelled her to travel to Liverpool for an abortion. This is the first time that any international court or human rights body has found that the criminalisation of abortion is in itself a violation of women’s human rights. The Committee held that the Irish law:
- Violated her right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment because it exacerbated the anguish associated with a pregnancy affected by fatal foetal abnormality. By compelling her to travel, the law deprived her of material and emotional support and appropriate care during and after her abortion. Criminalisation, in particular, compounded the shame and stigma associated with abortion in Ireland. The chilling effects of the Abortion Information Act, which meant that she could not obtain adequate information about terminating the pregnancy abroad, were a source of further distress during the decision-making process. The process of travel also disrupted her recovery and worsened the grieving process: the Committee focused on her experience of receiving the foetus’ remains by courier, after she had returned to Ireland. The Committee here is providing us with resources to upset that prevailing public discourse which suggests that a pregnancy affected by fatal foetal abnormality is a tragedy; a trial which good mothers must bear with serene nobility. Committee Member Sarah Cleveland described this as “a stereotypical idea that a pregnant woman should let nature run its course, regardless of the suffering involved for her.” The Committee says that, even though the state did not directly inflict harm on Amanda Mellet, its neglect and abandonment of women in this situation – who are left “isolated and defenceless” – moves situations like hers out of the realm of guiltless tragedy, and into that of state responsibility.
- Violated her rights to privacy and bodily integrity. The Committee held that the Irish abortion law amounted to an unjustifiable interference with Amanda Mellet’s decision-making around her pregnancy. The State had argued, following the Irish constitutional test, that the interference was proportionate to its aim of balancing the rights of the pregnant woman against those of the foetus. The legality of the interference under domestic law is not important in this context. In addition, the Committee notes that because the law violates the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the restrictions it places on the right to privacy and bodily integrity could not be considered compatible with international law. Irish law, in its zeal to protect the foetus, has gone too far. In particular, the Committee emphasises that the treatment of Amanda Mellet under law was especially unreasonable because her pregnancy was not viable. Sarah Cleveland wrote: “Requiring the author to carry a fatally impaired pregnancy to term only underscores the extent to which the State party has prioritized (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the reproductive role of women as mothers, and exposes its claimed justification in this context as a reductio ad absurdum.”
- Violated her right to freedom from discrimination. Amanda Mellet pointed out that women who choose to continue their pregnancies after a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, and deliver a stillborn baby in Ireland receive state-funded care, while those who choose to travel for termination must bear the expense of doing so by themselves. Similarly-situated women are treated differently, with real financial and medical consequences. The Committee accepted that this difference in treatment amounted to discrimination in two ways.
- First, the law discriminates against women as women. The State had made the facile argument that gender discrimination is confined to circumstances where men and women are similarly situated but men are better treated: by definition, they maintained, it cannot occur in respect of pregnancy because only women can become pregnant. Sarah Cleveland emphasises that the criminalisation of abortion is gender discrimination, because it affects a health service that only women need, and places no equivalent burden on men. In addition, the Committee reminds the state that gender stereotyping of women is in itself a form of gender discrimination. In this respect, an interesting point from a feminist perspective is the Committee’s observation that the difference in treatment between those women who carry to term, and those who terminate the pregnancy is rooted in stereotypes of women as ‘reproductive instruments’. This point has been canvassed in Irish feminist scholarship for decades. Yad Ben Achour elaborated: “The prohibition of abortion in Ireland, owing to its binding effect, which is indirectly punitive and stigmatizing, targets women because they are women and puts them in a specific situation of vulnerability, which is discriminatory in relation to men. Under this legislation, the author has in effect been the victim of the sexist stereotype, whereby women’s pregnancy must, except where the life of the mother is at risk, continue, irrespective of the circumstances, as they are limited exclusively to their reproductive role as mothers. Reducing the author to a reproductive instrument constitutes discrimination and infringes her rights both to self-determination and to gender equality.”
- Second the law failed to take into account the socio-economic effects of this differential treatment; in particular the costs of travel and seeking treatment abroad. Several Committee members maintained that the discrimination was not only between women who carried their pregnancies to term and those who travelled, but between those who could more easily afford to travel abroad for abortions and those who like Amanda Mellet, struggled to pay for the travel and the procedure. Sarah Cleveland noted that Article 26 ICCPR “prohibits the unequal access to reproductive health care for low-income and vulnerable populations that results from Ireland’s legal restrictions on reproductive health services.”
- Violated her right to seek and receive information. Three Committee members held that the Abortion Information Act encourages medical personnel to withhold clear and timely information that women like Amanda Mellet could use to make decisions about their pregnancy and health, and that this in itself is a violation of rights under the ICCPR.
The Committee’s emphasis on the woman’s entitlement to expect a certain level of compassion, care and attention from the state is very welcome. Amanda Mellet, Termination for Medical Reasons Ireland, their legal advisors and the Center for Reproductive Rights must be commended for their work in bringing this case to the Committee.The government is required to respond to the Committee’s decision within 180 days, outlining the concrete steps which it will take to remedy the identified human rights abuses, and to prevent future similar harm to other women. The ruling will contribute significantly to the existing moral pressure on the government to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment (see further discussion by Fiona de Londras here). The Health Minister, Simon Harris, has indicated that he wants to see law reform in this area. However, the government of which he is a member has continued to drag its heels on the issue of abortion law reform.
This post is by Mairead Enright of Kent Law School – firstname.lastname@example.org