An IHRL-compliant post-8th Amendment Abortion Law for Ireland. #repealthe8th

The open-access journal feminists@law has today published the general scheme of the ‘Access to Abortion Bill 2015; a piece of model legislation drafted by a group of feminist academic lawyers and intended to regulate abortion in Ireland after repeal of the 8th Amendment.

The authors are: Mairead Enright, Fiona de Londras, Vicky Conway, Mary Donnelly, Ruth Fletcher, Natalie McDonnell, Sheelagh McGuinness, Claire Murray, Sinead Ring and Sorcha Ui Chonnachtaigh.

  • The model legislation is here.
  • A short paper placing it in its constitutional and statutory context is here. This blogpost draws on that paper.

The legislation was originally drafted for Labour Women, which established a Commission for Repeal of the 8th Amendment in late 2014. Part of the work of that Commission was to produce proposed legislation which could regulate  abortion in the event that the 8th Amendment was removed from the Constitution. The Commission comprised three groups: a political group, a medical group, and a group of legal experts. The authors of this paper are those legal experts. Although drafted as part of the Labour Women Commission, and with some (limited) input from the other Commission groups, the proposed draft is that of the authors of this paper (working within the confines of our remit as ‘legal experts’ to the Commission) and not of the Labour Party or of Labour Women. It has not been adopted by the Labour Party or by Labour Women.

In drafting, we were guided by four principles.

  • First, and perhaps most importantly, we were determined to design a law that would regulate abortion in Ireland by primary reference to the bodily integrity, welfare, agency, autonomy and self-determination of pregnant women while still recognising a public interest in preserving foetal life where possible, with the pregnant woman’s consent. By achieving this, we hoped to express a legislative commitment to no longer viewing a pregnant woman’s body as the mechanism by which the State fulfils its perceived responsibilities towards the foetus, but rather as the body of a woman who maintains her agency and her constitutional rights notwithstanding her pregnancy. In that sense, we proposed a piece of law, which would aim to be transformative, to a significant degree, of the prevailing discourse around Irish abortion law. The point is not that we think foetal life is unimportant. Rather, we wanted to show what woman-centred abortion legislation would look like in an Irish context.  To that end, we inserted key Guiding Principles in Head 3 that should be applied whenever the legislation is being interpreted or applied. These radically shift the approach to abortion from that the status quo. Head 3 provides:

(1) Access to abortion is guaranteed in accordance with the provisions of this Act.

(2) In making any decision under the Act, or in providing medical care and services under this Act, the Heads shall be interpreted in the manner most favourable to achieving positive health outcomes for the pregnant woman, and to the protection of her rights, including the rights to:

a. life;
b. freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment;
c. bodily integrity and autonomy;
d. self-determination, including the right to informed decision-making in relation to medical treatment;
e. private and family life, including the right to privacy;
f. health, including the right of access to appropriate health-care in a safe, prompt and timely fashion, and the right of access to healthcare information.

(3) Access to abortion services will not be impeded because of race, sex, religion, national, ethnic or social origin, disability, HIV status, marital or family status, immigration status, sexual orientation, age, birth or other social status.

(4) Sustaining embryonic and foetal life in pregnancy is an important social role, which should be voluntary and consensual.

That said, this is not pro-choice legislation in the ‘free safe and legal’ mould, not because the authors are not pro-choice (we are), but because we were drafting for the Labour Party, which is not, as yet, committed to providing free, safe and legal abortion after repeal of the 8th Amendment. (The explanatory notes to the draft legislation highlight points at which we feel the legislation may be too conservative). Bearing in mind the restrictions entailed in drafting abortion legislation for a political party in Ireland at the time, we strayed beyond mainstream political consensus to the extent that we felt European and international human rights law clearly enabled us to do. As such, we suggest that our draft law may represent a useful yardstick against which to measure later legislative proposals by a future Irish government.

  • Second, the proposed law designates grounds for abortion which, to a significant degree, challenge the mainstream consensus on what a new Irish abortion law should contain. Politicians advocating for reform have tended to accept that a new law should permit abortion not only on grounds of risk to the life of the woman, but on the grounds that the pregnancy has come about through incest or rape, or that the foetus is incapable of surviving outside the womb. There is also some agreement that abortion should be available on a limited ‘health’ ground – certainly one which would reassure doctors that they could act to end the pregnancy of a seriously ill woman whose life is not at risk. Our proposed grounds go somewhat beyond such mainstream consensus. In particular :
    • we do not provide for a separate rape ground, in order to avoid any suggestion that a woman should be required to prove that she has been raped or to participate in any criminal process;
    • we provide for two health grounds: a simple one applicable in early pregnancy, and a requirement to prove severe or disabling damage to health in later pregnancy and
    • we do not confine the foetal anomaly ground to situations in which the foetus is certain to die within the womb if the pregnancy continues.
  • The proposed law aims to enshrine an approach to medical practice that replaces pro-natalist paternalism with a welfare orientation, seeing the pregnant woman as the patient and abortion as a medical procedure. This is intended not only to nudge a reorientation of Irish maternal medical practice, but also to empower medics to follow the course of medical treatment that they believe is best for their primary patient (i.e. the pregnant woman) as determined by doctor and patient together.
  • We were concerned that the legislation should ensure—to the extent possible—that abortion is actually available in practice, while also respecting the deeply held convictions of members of the medical profession and of the public in respect of the status of the ‘unborn’.This was of fundamental importance. It is quite clear that the legal availability of abortion can be frustrated by harassment, unregulated conscientious objection, and failure to provide services. In order to try to achieve this we focused on three areas: conscientious objection, provision of services and protection of locations in which services are provided, and review of negative decisions as to the availability of abortion in any particular case.

We have published our proposals on an open-access basis for discussion, debate and development by all interested parties.

Law, disobedience and 'the abortion pill'. #abortionpilltrain

Earlier this week, a small number of women and men re-staged the ‘Contraceptive Train’ of 1971 as an ‘Abortion Pill Train’. A group organised by ROSA, Re(al)-Productive Health, Action for Choice and the Socialist Party travelled to Belfast, where they collected pills ordered from Women on Web and delivered to friends’ addresses in the North.  On return to Connolly Station in Dublin, 10 women took the pills in public, to demonstrate their safety, and explained their actions to the assembled crowd. The video above is by Paula Geraghty, there are some great photographs of the train journey here and video of the protest here. In going to the North, the train mimics a trip frequently undertaken by Irish women. Women on Web do not supply the pills directly to Ireland because the state has become so good at confiscating them. In order to obtain them, you must be able to provide an address in another jurisdiction, typically Northern Ireland, and arrange for them to be collected. No attempt was made to arrest those who travelled on the train, or to seize the pills, and there was no anti-abortion counter-protest.

The Guardian erroneously reported that the train collective had bought their pills from the Marie Stopes clinic, but they are not readily available for purchase in Northern Ireland. As Alliance for Choice remind us, women using them in Northern Ireland do so under the cloud of potential prosecution. Readers may remember that in March 2013 Alliance for Choice highlighted this position by publishing an open letter in which 100 women and men testified that they had used pills to induce an abortion themselves, or had helped someone else to do so.

The pills the train imported are used for early medical abortions. Their use is not a new phenomenon in Ireland. For further details on how they work, see here, here,  here and here.  Buying them is, of course, much cheaper than travelling abroad for a later abortion (though arranging to collect them from a Northern Irish address is not easy for everyone). This matters deeply when we consider how families are affected by the politics of austerity. But the pills are also more accessible precisely because they can be used in most cases without intensive medical supervision, in private. Regulatory regimes for their use vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, in the UK, BPAS has been campaigning for some time for amendments to the existing abortion legislation to allow women to take them in their own homes rather than travelling repeatedly to a clinic. The majority of women who use pills procured from Women on Web are able to use them safely (see, for example, this story from The Examiner). The earlier they are used, the safer and more effective they are. However, complications are possible in rare cases even when they are used properly (leaving aside the issue of purchase from unscrupulous providers and use of inappropriate drugs). For example a very small minority of women – about 1% – may experience heavy bleeding requiring medical attention. The Ray D’Arcy show on Today FM recently broadcast a letter from a woman who had experienced two weeks of severe bleeding after inducing a miscarriage using misoprostol purchased in a pharmacy. ((Misoprostol is available from pharmacies in Ireland as a medicine for symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. It is also used in Irish hospitals in the medical management of miscarriage. It can be used to terminate a pregnancy on its own but it is safer to use it with mifepristone, or RU 486. Mifepristone is a steroid which can be used to induce labour after foetal death in utero. Since 2003, special recording obligations  apply to its supply and administration in Ireland, and it is not available in ordinary pharmacies. )) Cases like this one do not demonstrate that the current criminal prohibition on use of the pills is justified. Neither do they show that an intensive regime of scrutiny and surveillance must be established before their use could be legalised in Ireland. Rather they demonstrate the importance of making medical assistance accessible to women in those cases where it becomes necessary. They also show up, yet again, the stress, denial of information, inhibition of access to medical treatment and outright emotional isolation which a regime of criminalisation imposes on women in need of abortions. As Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice has said, stigma means that women often delay visits to the doctor even where an abortion has resulted in complications. To accuse the abortion pill train protestors of ‘dangerous’ behaviour in taking the pills ignores the state-supported structures of stigma and neglect which amplify the very small risks inherent in taking these pills properly.

The abortion pill train is a collection of small illegal or quasi-legal acts which individual Irish women commit on a  regular basis. The protest not only breaks several of the abortion laws, but shows up the spaces in which they are already broken: in which they are porous, not enforced, practically or politically unenforceable, or just about surmountable if you have the resources, the courage, the knowledge and the time.

  • Taking the pills: A woman who is not pregnant and consumes an abortifacient in Ireland commits no offence under the PLDPA 2013.  A pregnant woman successfully using the same pills to successfully terminate her pregnancy might be guilty of the offence of ‘intentional destruction of unborn human life’ under s. 22 of the Act. The heft of this new offence is  difficult to gauge. There is no doubt but that women using Women on Web’s services in Ireland may understand themselves to be staring down the barrel of 14 years in prison. In theory, an individual supplying these pills to a woman for the purposes of ending her pregnancy, or being reckless as to whether she might use them for that purpose, might also come within the scope of inchoate offences (attempt etc) under s.22.  There are significant evidentiary difficulties inherent in applying these sorts of offences to early medical abortion. A prosecution can only be brought at the instance of the DPP, who will not prosecute unless there is sufficient evidence to justify it, and if a prosecution is in the broader public interest.  In the face of suggestions from within his own party that the criminal penalty for this offence be reduced to 5 years, the Minister for Health in debating the Bill suggested that the maximum 14 year prison sentence provided for under the Act was intended for the ‘back street operator who was a recidivist carrying out dangerous procedures on vulnerable persons’ – we might speculate as to whether a woman performing an early medical abortion herself would ever receive such a sentence. That said, cases like those of Ms Y and Ms X demonstrate the risks of a certain kind of zeal in enforcing the letter of the law – we can imagine a woman being prosecuted for using pills for an early medical abortion, or being caught up in another’s prosecution. And that imaginary has its own effects.
  • Importing the pills: Both misoprostol and mifepristone are controlled drugs under the Medical Products Regulations 2003. Pills sent in the post are routinely seized on importation by the HPRA and Revenue and Customs – as noted already this programme of seizures has been effective enough to convince Women on Web to effectively cease direct supply to Ireland. The Revenue’s enforcement officers are empowered under the Customs Consolidation Act and the Irish Medicines Board Act 1995 to detain and ultimately seize and destroy them, just as they are empowered to seize medicines found on your person or in baggage at a border. A prosecution is unlikely to result from seizure of a single package. Bulk importation is another problem. In January 2011, Fang Huang was convicted in the District Court of importing mifepristone from China and supplying it to women from a Parnell St Supermarket. Very little information is available about the prosecution. She was fined €5,000 –  €500 for each of 10 charges. The Irish Medicines Board initiated the prosecution.
  • Advertising Women on Web/informing women on how to use the pills: In theory, speaking about, or advertising, or putting up stickers about Women on Web, or carrying a banner with their web address contravenes the Regulation of Information Act 1995. Offenders are liable to pay a fine of up to IR£1500.  Advertisement and public speaking are not the same as one-to-one counselling, which is much more tightly controlled by s. 5 of the Act. A  sticker or notice advertising Women on Web in a public place clearly breaches s.4 of the Act: in the terms of the legislation, this is acceptable because the passerby has not voluntarily sought the information out. Where the information is given at a public meeting, or in a television broadcast, the law is less clear. Under s.3 of the Act, it is permissible to provide ‘Act information’ in these contexts if two conditions are satisfied. First, the information must relate ‘only to services which are lawfully available in [a particular] place and to persons who, in providing them, are acting lawfully in that place’. The language of the Act pre-dates transnational online services like Women on Web or Women Help Women, which rely on co-operative networks of agents in several jurisdictions. It is difficult to tell how it applies – in what ‘place’ is the service ‘available’ if the pills are ordered online in Ireland, under the remote guidance of a doctor in Austria via a website hosted somewhere else, supplied from India and finally consumed in Ireland with the guidance of a telephone counsellor in the Netherlands? In 2010, Women on Web, responding to a challenge from the Irish government, obtained a ruling that remote supervision of abortion was not illegal in Austria. The second provision is more problematic in the context of the abortion pill train – the information cannot be accompanied by advocacy or promotion of termination of pregnancy. As always, invoking the Act in any kind of public speech context only serves to highlight the impossibility of enforcing it while maintaining the possibility of informed debate about abortion service provision. Again, we have to wonder whether the DPP could find that the public interest is served by prosecuting activists in this sort of case.

Naturally, there are political risks inherent in choosing law-breaking as a method of protest. In pursuing this kind of disobedience, the protest dares the state to act, or highlights the effects of its inaction. (Ruth Coppinger’s action as a TD -the only woman of three TDs who travelled- in taking the train and publicly taking the pill is particularly interesting in this respect.) There is the danger of drawing official attention to the methods which women and networks of activists such as Women on Web use to cope with the prevailing legal regime, of misleading women into thinking that the law is more easily circumvented than is actually the case, or of provoking conservative disapproval and backlash.

There is also still a sense of the scandalous in law-breaking. Some activists expressed discomfort with the choice of date for the protest – the train returned home a few hours before the vigils held to remember the death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012. My own view is that there must be a place for both vigils and civil disobedience in abortion protest, particularly when we consider the ways in which the Irish law and politics of abortion have manipulated the deaths and suffering of ‘deserving’ women in order to silence ‘improper’ voices. But then, I write that with the comfort of distance.

It is only a little bit surprising to see sharp distinctions drawn between the contraceptive train and the abortion pill train. The action undertaken by 47 women from the IWLM seems comparatively uncontroversial now because the purchase of contraceptives was not illegal in Northern Ireland in 1971,  the IWLM never went as far as to demand abortion access, and in the end (though this was not revealed at the time) those who travelled bought aspirin instead of the contraceptive pill because they did not have prescriptions. Crucially, the train seems so far in the past, and the rightness of the action so obvious in hindsight that it has lost any controversial political bite. Even David Quinn can invoke the condom train now. Perhaps that is why we so readily remember the train, and forget, for example, Women on Waves’ visit to Dublin, or the Sister Ship (just to name transport-themed reproductive rights protests…). The original train was less tame than this public chooses to remember.  It was decades before access to contraception was fully liberalised in Ireland. The women in 1971 knew there would be a moment of confrontation with customs officers when they returned to Connolly, they worried about the possibility of arrest, and they had prepared tactics – including outright mockery of the customs officers – to adopt if they were challenged. June Levine in her memoir Sisters documents that each woman had been issued with a leaflet prepared in advance by Nell McCafferty and Mary Anderson – every woman was to be issued with a pill. They were to  declare their pill to the customs officers and then swallow it. It is instructive to remember that the contraceptive train in 1971 also sparked divisions with the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. Nuala Fennell, more interested in institutional reform than in protest,  thought it was one in a series of counterproductive stunts ((June Levine, Sisters; Diarmuid Ferriter, Ambiguous Republic)) Mairin de Burca stayed at home to organise the welcome party, because she felt that it would be off-putting for rural women to see single women involved in importing contraceptives. Other single women travelled. ((Ann Stopper, Monday’s at Gaj’s; Mary Kenny, Something of Myself and Others)) On the train on the return journey to Dublin, June Levine writes, a common sentiment was; “Our mothers will kill us!”. ((June Levine, Sisters.)) The women chanted that the law was obsolete, but they also had to negotiate the costs of proving it, and they marched out into Connolly station to the tune of ‘We Shall Overcome’. Perhaps some day, we will see the abortion pill train invoked as the acceptable historical opposite of some new radical act of ‘attention-seeking’.

Sparing Enda's blushes. Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. and #knickersforchoice

Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A. is a direct action performance and protest group based in London, established to raise awareness of the Irish and Northern Irish abortion laws, which effectively require women to travel to England to terminate pregnancies in almost all circumstances. I.M.E.L.D.A. is an acronym, which stands for ‘Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion’. The name Imelda has an older origin. ‘Imelda’ was the code word for abortion used by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), which helped women travelling from Ireland to access abortion in England. A code word was needed to protect women in the 1980s who might be telephoning to make arrangements (at a time when access to abortion information was heavily censored) on a shared line. The members of Speaking of Imelda usually wear red for performances. This is another gesture to to the IWASG, who might tell a woman travelling from Ireland by ferry and by train to look out at Paddington Station for the woman in the red skirt who would look after her for the night.

In the last six months or so, the Imeldas have adapted this image of practical care, secrecy and private solidarity for public protest. Some of the performers were members of the IWASG. Some are connected to the Spanish pro-choice organisation ‘My Belly Is Mine‘. Most are Irish women more recently settled in London. They have staged a variety of provocative actions. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade in London, women in red wheeling ‘solitary suitcases that scream one night only’, wove their way through the crowd of spectators, asking directions to the abortion clinic. In August, when the story of Miss Y broke, they stood on the steps of the Irish embassy to recite a ‘secular rosary’ of the names of Irish women subjected to gender-based violence by the Irish state.

Their most recent campaign is #knickersforchoice. During the holidays, the Imeldas appeared, in red headscarves and sunglasses, to polish up the brass and granite of the Irish embassy building with their underwear They have since asked supporters to take photos of knickers emblazoned with pro-choice slogans hanging in public places and tweet them with the hashtag #knickersforchoice. At the March for Choice in Dublin, they appeared in costume at the margins of the crowd, pints of Guinness in hand, with a banner asking for ‘choice in Ireland’ sewn out of bright red knickers. In the evening, they hosted a station where attendees could make their own #knickersforchoice.

On October 3rd, the Imeldas arrive at the Crown Moran Hotel in Cricklewood, but not all of them are in red. While some distribute informational knickers outside the hotel, two are undercover in dark dresses. They need to make it inside, to where the Taoiseach is the guest of honour at a Fine Gael dinner with Irish emigrants based in London whose views on abortion are of no interest to the government   donors paying 1200 euro a table. They are successful. They welcome him to England. As they chant reminders of the ’12 women a day’ who travel from Ireland to England for abortion, he reaches for a steadying glass of wine. A pair of knickers asking him to repeal the 8th Amendment is served to him at his table (one of his companions quickly covers it with a napkin to spare the Taoiseach’s gaze). Within less than a minute, they are steered out of the hall by security, setting off a rape alarm, still chanting “Solidarity to our Sisters in Ireland!”

Why is this sort of activism important? Why is it more than a bit of craic? Is it just a collection of improper insults, much less important than the real business of law reform? In In Spite of Plato, Adriana Cavarero retells Plato’s story of the Greek philosopher Thales and a young, attractive maidservant from Thrace. The philosopher was walking along, contemplating the stars,  performing the great and important work of truth-seeking, distracted, when he fell into a well. The foreign slave girl laughed at him, because he had been so busy with what he thought of as grand conceptual matters that he has become awkward and clumsy around the real and the practical. She laughed because ‘she fully belonged to the world of life’, as a slave and as a woman. She belonged to ‘the services and concrete rhythms of life that the patriarchal order assigns to women’. This is an oppressive space, but hers was an unrestrained, and insightful and ‘desecrating’ laughter. It drew attention to the woman’s presence even where she has no place. It redirected  focus to the facts of life, to the ways in which the lives of men and women are constrained.

The Imeldas’ mockery is important as a counterpoint to Fine Gael’s po-faced ‘statesmanship’. For the government, abortion is a matter of deep moral and political consequence for the entire populace – to be held away from the ballot box until the moment is exactly right. It is the constitutional issue of our time. It is a matter for cautious unpublished advice by the Attorney General. A referendum cannot be rushed. A proper political debate should not be allowed to excite undue passion. Reform cannot be triggered by the mere facts of any individual case, but must be preceded by careful weighing of abstract propositions. The purpose of any legislation is to keep the floodgates of choice firmly closed.

And then, in Cricklewood, the Taoiseach is ‘knickerbombed’ into embarrassment. The mockery, with its connotations of sex and scandal – dirty laundry – creates a space in which he can be reminded of troublesome reality. His dinner is, for a moment, spoiled.

I wonder did they bring him a fresh plate?

On Repealing the 8th Amendment. #repealthe8th

Our regular contributor Mairead Enright spoke at the recent ‘Repeal the 8th’ conference in Dublin last Saturday. A video of her presentation is below. You can find other videos of the day (by Paula Geraghty) here.

To join Lawyers for Choice, email

To write to your TD on the issue see here.

To sign the Repeal the 8th petition see here.

For details of the March for Choice see here.


The effects of the 8th Amendment range far beyond abortion. The Amendment has come to have consequences for all cases of maternal-foetal conflict.

For example, it may be that prevailing interpretations of the constitution entail that:

  • A living but unviable foetus (fatal foetal abnormality or inevitable miscarriage) can evidently assert the constitutional right to life against the mother, even at grave cost to the woman’s health.
  • It may be that the unborn has a right to an opportunity to be born alive, such that doctors are required to
    • attempt to sustain a second semester pregnancy until viability, even at grave cost to the mother’s mental and physical health.
    • favour an attempted early live birth even where this is not in the best interests of woman or child.
  •  The mother’s consent to medical treatment – as an offshoot of her constitutional rights to privacy, dignity and bodily integrity – plays almost no constitutional role in cases of maternal/foetal conflict. Thus women can be subjected to treatment in the form of Caesarean section, induced labour and so on, without very much regard for their best interests, or their refusal of medical treatment. There is more than an echo of the past justification of symphysiotomy here.

There is no legislation or reported judgment, which adequately clarifies the law as it applies to any of these scenarios. Very little has been published to explain the ethical and legal underpinnings of likely treatment options. At the very least we should investigate opportunities for specific legislation on maternity care in cases of maternal-foetal conflict.

The presence of the 8th Amendment leads to the mischaracterization of certain medical issues which can occur during pregnancy as ‘abortion adjacent’, when they are nothing of the sort.  The 8th Amendment requires us to misinterpret and misconstrue women’s valid treatment needs.

The 8th Amendment is poorly designed. It has strayed away from the people’s intention, and ground to a halt. When a constitutional provision becomes mechanically unworkable in this way, repeal and replacement are standard responses.

The 8th Amendment is an unusual constitutional provision because – through the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 and practice guidelines for the medical professions – it is regularly interpreted and applied by agents other than the courts. Indeed, we might say that doctors are the primary interpreters of the 8th Amendment.

Over the course of thirty years, we would have expected the courts to flesh out the text of the Amendment much more than has already been done. However, the courts very rarely have the opportunity to consider the Amendment because it is often impossible for a pregnant woman – especially if she is ill or distressed – to bring her case to the superior courts in good time, and because it will be very difficult for her to assert standing before the courts if her pregnancy is already terminated. The criminalization of abortion poses another obstacle to the emergence of suitable litigation. Most of our constitutional jurisprudence on abortion derives from (i) cases brought by third parties such as S.P.U.C. and (ii) unusual cases of young women in the care of the state.

Because the courts so rarely have the chance to consider the 8th Amendment:

  • Our abortion jurisprudence is very vague and very thin. The X case (which concerns a raped, suicidal, teenage girl in early pregnancy) has been stretched to apply to very different kinds of case.
  • Doctors must guess at the application of the X case to a wide range of scenarios which have never been considered by any court.
  • The 8th Amendment has fossilized. This is because doctors are not judges. They do not have the authority to develop new law. They have, naturally, been unduly cautious and the law has stagnated. The Supreme Court has repeatedly expressed that the Constitution should adapt to the developing needs of the people, but the 8th Amendment is no longer able to do so.

 When a constitutional provision is placed beyond workable interpretation, we are entitled to remove that provision and start again. There are plenty of precedents for this course of action. For example:

  • The 1992 referendum which secured the right to information and the right to travel was a response to judicial restriction of those rights by virtue of their interpretation of the 8th Amendment.
  • The Citizenship referendum in 2003 was, in part, a response to judicial decision-making on the rights of Irish-born children whose parents were vulnerable to deportation.
  • The recent children’s rights referendum was, in part, a response to judicial interpretations of the constitutional rights of the marital family.
  • The forthcoming marriage equality referendum is designed to respond to difficulties with the interpretation of the constitutional provisions on marriage.

A Referendum on the 8th Amendment is an opportunity to bring the Constitution into line with prevailing social values around pregnant women’s medical care.

 The Constitution is the place for broad statements of shared communal values, which guide the courts in their interpretation of the law, and in their development of constitutional rights.  It is not the place for tests, rules and regulations.

If we remove the 8th Amendment, the right to life will remain, and it will be possible to maintain strong  (but not unworkably absolute) standards of respect for unborn human life. In addition, it will be possible for certain of women’s constitutional rights, which have been limited by the 8th Amendment, to bloom in the gap it will leave. There is a strong argument for adding an expressly enumerated right to bodily integrity to the Constitution. The right already exists as an unenumerated right. Explicitly including it in the Constitution, in the context of a repeal of the 8th Amendment, would:

  • Firmly guide the Courts in future cases of maternal-foetal conflict, and prevent the re-introduction of an 8th Amendment style interpretation ‘by the back door’.
  • Incentivise the future development of human rights oriented medical practice in Ireland.

Time for Our Referendum

The following is the text of a letter written by a number of regular HRinI contributors and signed by over 100 academics, which was published in the Irish Times today (full list of signators only available online). Here we have added a number of additional signatures received after the letter went to press. Others who wish to express their desire for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution should sign the petition organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign here

Dear Editor,

We are people in or from Ireland. We are under the age of 50. We could not vote in the 1983 abortion referendum which profoundly limited women’s autonomy. No subsequent referendum has provided an opportunity to undo that damage. Many of us have lived our whole lives under an abortion regime in which we have had no say. As a generation we have grown up knowing that the State would compel us to travel if we wished to exercise substantive control over our reproductive lives. Continue reading Time for Our Referendum

Ireland before the UNHRC.

I am in Geneva as part of the Irish NGO delegation to Ireland’s 4th Periodic Review under the ICCPR.* Readers will be aware that the UN Human Rights Committee heard testimony early yesterday from some 12 Irish NGOs and civil society organisations, and from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. It might be interesting to give a sense of how the day falls into place. The Committee meets in the Palais Wilson, which is down by the shore of Lake Geneva. People congregate in the cafeteria where the idea is that, as Tobias Kelly writes in This Side of Silence, it can be possible to buttonhole Committee members (if they appear, and if they are willing). There is a great collaborative buzz  in the room, as people mill around, revising their submissions, anxious in anticipation of the next event. The age profile is relatively young and there are a lot of women in the room.  There are very different levels of experience – from first time small campaigns to organisations like the IFPA which have been around for generations. By and large, the groups have a common agenda: the notable exception arrives in the form of two young men from Family & Life and the Pro-Choice Alliance, whose position on abortion is, of course, in conflict with that of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the other assembled interested NGOs, and on my reading, the Committee itself.  The Irish delegation also features several activists whose lives are directly affected by issues under consideration by the committee – particularly from TFMR Ireland, Survivors of Symphysiotomy and the Irish Traveller Movement. They do some of the most effective advocacy work of the day.

At midday, each of the NGOs has a two minute slot in which to make a briefing statement. The Committee has received written submissions from the NGOS in advance (see here under Ireland), but this oral statement is a chance to define your group’s priorities for the Committee. I learn a lot about what is possible in two minutes. The room in the Palais Wilson is a study in poor design. It is long, narrow, level and warm, with the Committee sitting in a rectangle at the top of the room, and the delegates – and press, if there are any, and perhaps observing students – arrayed in rows behind them. The State’s delegation, when they arrive later in the day, sit on a raised dais at the top of the room. The effect of the layout is that, from the back of the room, you can’t see any member of the Committee, even though they’re not that far away, and you would struggle to tell which of the suited gents from the Departments is speaking at any given time. I sat at the very back, with some of the group from Survivors of Symphysiotomy. The acoustics are poor. Without the translators’ headphones in, you often can’t hear a thing, except the steady typing of delegates taking notes, for themselves or for twitter.

Break for lunch, and then a short and informal briefing meeting,  in a smaller room at which members of the Committee can ask questions of the assembled NGO delegates, and of the members of the  Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. As people find a space in the small room, an odd tableau assembles by the back wall – the young men from the pro-life NGOs leaning up against a marble mantelpiece, ready to interject, with the women and men of various pro-choice movements arranged in front of and around them.  At this meeting, you can get a strong sense of what is going to happen when the State presents for questioning. Several groups – particularly Doctors for Choice, the Irish Traveller Movement, and the Commission – were able to make very effective responses to the Committee’s queries.

Immediately afterwards, the Minister for Justice arrives, together with the Irish ambassador and a phalanx of civil servants from the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Attorney General. The Minister outlines Ireland’s efforts, such as they are, to comply with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and details some recent developments in Irish human rights law and practice. There is some surprise that she never mentions the issue of Traveller ethnic minority status as an achievement. After the Minister’s opening statement  the Committee asks a focused and demanding series of questions, based on the list of issues here. They are particularly strong, as I had hoped they would be, on the issues of historical reparations, and abortion rights. It is clear both that the NGOs and the Commission have done a hugely effective job, and that the members of the Committee are highly engaged and very well briefed. The State delegation has a 15 minute break in which to consider the questions, before presenting replies.

The mood is good. The quality of the questioning strikes home with everyone. How much of the domestic law-making process is based on rigorous, informed questioning of this kind?  How hard do NGOs like the IFPA or Survivors of Symphysiotomy have to work to get questions like the ones below on the domestic agenda?  It’s a pity, on reflection that Irish media outlets haven’t sent more journalists to these hearings, simply because the discourse on many issues is so different in this context. Too much media reporting of human rights issues begins and ends with the ‘human tragedy’ angle. There is much less interest in/engagement with/informed critique of the sorts of structures which might be proposed to address and prevent such violence.

Of the state replies, when they come, the less said, perhaps, the better.  The mood in our camp deflates a little. People are tired. I am told that in the ICCL Green Room back in Dublin there were audible sighs at some of the Government responses.  One of the Committee members has brought some of his Masters students to observe. Among them is a former student of mine. Later, after the State submissions, he expresses amusement at how little the government’s representatives are willing to give away. It is hard to tell how much of what is said is immovable government policy, and how much is stalling.

I will be paying special attention to three issues in the follow up questions tomorrow:

  • Professor Yuval Shany, having noted Ireland’s ‘disappointing’ refusal to bring our abortion law into compliance with the ICCPR, reminded the Minister that her predecessor had described the operation of the law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality as ‘unacceptable cruelty’.  He then asked a series of very detailed questions about the operation of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act 2013. These, by and large, mirror the joint submission of the Abortion Rights Campaign, the IFPA, Doctors for Choice, Lawyers for Choice and Termination for Medical Reasons, Ireland. The Government’s response ignored all of these questions. It simply asserted the legitimacy of the constitutional position as striking a ‘balance’ between the right to life of the mother and that of the unborn. The assertion is that Irish abortion law is the product of some sort of delicate evolutionary process which cannot be rushed. It is, to paraphrase the Minister, a nuanced and proportionate response to a profound moral question. Mary Jackson, the Principal of the Department of Health asserted that Irish abortion law is compatible with the ICCPR (even though it does not permit abortion in the cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality) because the convention must be read as a whole, and Ireland is complying with Article 25 ICCPR  (the right to vote and participate in elections….) by giving effect to the ‘will of the people’. Make of that what you will.
  • Christine Chanet raised the issue of the investigation of the Magdalene Laundries. She notes the narrow remit of the McAleese report and questions the degree to which it was independent of the State. The twist in the question is very telling: “Why is the state so reluctant to find out what happened in the laundries?” The Minister almost omitted to answer this question, but insisted again that the Magdalenes  report and scheme were on solid ground. UNCAT have already pressed this issue with the last government, and it isn’t going to go away.
  • Professor Shany also raised the issue of the symphysiotomy redress scheme. This was an especially useful question because he did not simply ask an open ended question about what the State proposed to do for survivors. He acknowledged the redress scheme, and asked what the State now proposed to do, given that the majority of survivors had refused to co-operate with it and had criticised its failure to produce accountability.  The tenor of Professor Shany’s question is important because it may suggest that survivors should be allowed to participate properly in designating the remedies they receive for human rights abuses. This is a refreshing perspective, because it directly contrasts with the government’s paternalism in respect of members of S.O.S. The government offered no response yesterday, but has promised to address ‘additional issues’ at tomorrow’s session. If we read this question together with Madame Chanet’s question on the Magdalenes, and Prof. Shany’s later question on proposals to investigate the Mother and Baby homes, it may be that the Committee is about to take a firm  stance on the state’s obligations to repair historical injuries, and on the right to an effective remedy.

*I am tagging along with Survivors of Symphysiotomy, and I am a member of the newly-formed Lawyers for Choice (@lawyers4choice). The delegation is led by the ICCL. The University of Kent have funded my trip. However, this is a personal reflection, and all errors, opinions and omissions are my own.

You can watch  tomorrow’s session live at from 9am. A number of people are live-tweeting from Geneva and elsewhere using the hashtag #ICCPR. Look out in particular for @Doctors4Choice, @SoS_Ireland, @ICCLtweet and @smullallylaw ( Prof. Siobhan Mullally of UCC Law and the IHRC). I’ll be tweeting at @maireadenright.

CCJHR Seminar: ‘Abortion Secrecy / Abortion Privacy – What’s the difference and why does it matter?’

CCJHRProfessor Carol Sanger, Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law,

Columbia University, NY

Discussant: Máiread Enright, University of Kent / UCC

June 6th 2014, 9.15am – 11am

Venue: Moot Court Room, 1st floor, Aras na Laoi,

(Law Faculty, U.C.C.)


Advance booking is not required. Continue reading CCJHR Seminar: ‘Abortion Secrecy / Abortion Privacy – What’s the difference and why does it matter?’

Rights versus Remuneration: The English NHS and Abortion Services for Women from Northern Ireland

nhsWe welcome the following guest post from Sylvia de MarsSylvia is a Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University whose primary research interest is the interaction of EU free movement law with the organisation of public services in the Member States. She holds a PhD from the University of Nottingham.

Given that my  research considers the access rights of EU nationals to the English NHS, last week’s England and Wales High Court decision in R (on the application of A & Anor) v Secretary of State for Health didn’t come as much of a surprise, but remains regrettable. There are two dimensions to this case, which dealt with the question of whether or not Northern Ireland residents can obtain abortions with the English NHS free of charge.  The first dimension is a public law one, looking primarily at the organisation and funding of the healthcare services in the United Kingdom, and the second is a human rights one.  Continue reading Rights versus Remuneration: The English NHS and Abortion Services for Women from Northern Ireland

Letter to the Irish Times on Abortion Legislation and Fatal Foetal Abnormalities.

The following letter to the Editor of the Irish Times was carried in the print edition of the newspaper (but not the online edition) on June 13th. We reprint it here for readers’ information.

Dear Editor,

We understand that the Minister for Health has been advised that it is not possible to include terminations for fatal foetal abnormality in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, 2013. With respect, our initial response is to disagree. It is possible to interpret Article 40 3 3 so that the ‘unborn’ that is protected therein does not include those foetuses with fatal abnormalities. The Irish courts have not considered this legal issue and there is no binding precedent excluding such an interpretation.

Moreover, the Legislature has the power, and the duty, to legislate under the Constitution. When Justice McCarthy criticised the Legislature for failing to regulate the terms of Article 40 3 3 in the X case in 1992, he was speaking of a duty that existed prior to that case. The interpretation and regulation of Article 40 3 3 is not limited to the circumstances which arose in X. That case showed how the general principle, of vindicating unborn life with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, justified a termination in the particular circumstances of suicide risk. A different set of factual circumstances, such as those of fatal foetal abnormality, could also legally justify a termination of pregnancy given that these ‘unborns’ will not live once born. Therefore, it is within the Legislature’s power to act on this possibility and regulate for these circumstances.

The State used this legal argument to defend itself against the unsuccessful claim of Deirdre Conroy in the European Court of Human Rights, as she explained in The Irish Times on 31 May 2013. The High Court declined the opportunity to address this argument in D v HSE. The Court ruled instead that D, who was pregnant with an anencephalic foetus, could travel for a termination of pregnancy. The women of Termination for Medical Reasons, including Ruth Bowie and Arlette Lyons, have spoken publicly of being unable to access the healthcare they wanted in Ireland when their pregnancies were found to be unviable. In these circumstances, the Legislature has a moral as well as a legal duty to act now and include abortion for fatal foetal abnormalities within the Bill.
We urge the Minister to publish his legal advice on this issue so that it can be assessed and discussed. We ask the Minister to reconsider his position and to minimise the suffering of those women and couples who wish to end their unviable pregnancies at home.


  • Ruth Fletcher, DJur, Senior Lecturer in Law, Keele University
  • Mary Donnelly, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Law, University College Cork
  • Mairéad Enright, MA, BL, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
  • Eimear Spain, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University of Limerick
  • Jennifer Schweppe, LLM, Lecturer in Law, University of Limerick
  • Siobhán Mullally, PhD, Professor of Law, University College Cork
  • Fiona de Londras, PhD, Professor of Law, University of Durham
  • Fionnuala ni Aolain, PhD, Professor of Law, University of Ulster and Visiting Professor, Harvard Law School
  • Marguerite Bolger, MLitt, Senior Counsel, Law Library, Dublin
  • David Capper, PhD, Reader in Law, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Vicky Conway, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
  • Louise Crowley, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University College Cork
  • John Danaher, PhD, Lecturer in Law, Keele University
  • Michael Doherty, PhD, Lecturer in Law, Dublin City University
  • Catherine Forde, BCL, Barrister at Law, Law Library, Dublin
  • Marie Fox, LLM, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies, University of Birmingham
  • Patrick Hanafin, PhD, Professor of Law, Birkbeck College, University of London
  • Maebh Harding, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Portsmouth
  • John Harrington, BCL, Professor of Law, Cardiff University and Visiting Fellow, African Population and Health Research Centre, Nairobi
  • Barbara Hewson, MA, Barrister at Law, Lincoln’s Inn, London
  • Sarah Houlihan, LLM, Barrister at Law, Women’s Link Worldwide
  • Julie F Kay, Lead Counsel for A, B, and C in ABC v Ireland
  • Susan Leahy, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University of Limerick
  • Julie McCandless, PhD, Lecturer in Law, London School of Economics
  • Natalie McDonnell, MPhil, Barrister at Law, Law Library, Dublin
  • Sheelagh McGuinness, PhD, Research Fellow in Law, University of Birmingham
  • Kathyrn McNeilly, LLM, PhD candidate in Law, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Thérese Murphy, LLM, Professor of Law, University of Nottingham
  • Claire Murray, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University College Cork
  • Colin Murray, MJur, Senior Lecturer in Law, Newcastle University
  • Aoife Nolan, PhD, Professor of International Human Rights Law, University of Nottingham
  • Colm O’Cinnéide, PhD, Reader in Laws, University College London
  • Catherine O’Rourke, PhD, Lecturer in Human Rights and International Law, University of Ulster
  • Catherine O’Sullivan, DJur, Lecturer in Law, University College Cork
  • Sara Ramshaw, PhD, Lecturer in Law, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Sinéad Ring, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
  • Fergus Ryan, PhD, Lecturer in Law, Dublin Institute of Technology
  • Yvonne Scannell, PhD, Professor of Law, Trinity College Dublin
  • Olivia Smith, PhD, Lecturer in Law, Dublin City University
  • Mark Tottenham, BA, Barrister at Law, Law Library, Dublin
  • Sorcha Uí Chonnachtaigh, PhD, Lecturer in Ethics, Keele University
  • Judy Walsh, LLM, BL, Lecturer in Social Justice, University College Dublin
  • Darius Whelan, PhD, Lecturer in Law, University College Cork



Is Article 8 ECHR the ‘Feminist Article’?

indexWe are very pleased to welcome this guest post from Helen Fenwick who is Professor at Durham Law School. Helen is an expert in civil liberties, human rights and counter-terrorism law. She is also an expert advisor for Liberty and has been involved in policy development at national and international levels.  This post is also published at Inherently Human

This post concentrates on Article 8 ECHR to argue that it can be viewed as sympathetic to feminist goals since, due to its particular ability to impose positive obligations on the state in relation to creating respect for private or family life, it can require the state to create curbs on the actions of non-state actors particularly adverse to women (eg. in relation to domestic violence: Hajduova v Slovakia) and ensure the efficacy of services that women in particular might need to access, such as to abortion (P&S v Poland). Women are, it is argued, more at risk than men from the actions of non-state actors within the private and family sphere (see intervention of Equal Rights Trust in Eremia and Others v Moldova on this point), so Article 8 has a particular pertinence for women, and unlike Article 14 (the guarantee of freedom from discrimination), which has not proved to have a strong impact as a means of advancing the interests of women due to its reliance on furthering formal equality (see eg Dembour Who Believes in Human Rights, Ch 7), Article 8 can address the substantive concerns of women, without the need for any reliance on a comparator.

Other ECHR Articles are also relevant. Article 3 would also support recognition of positive obligations, (see McGlynn, Clare (2009) ‘Rape, torture and the European convention on human rights’ ICLQ 58 (3)) including in the contexts considered below, although the harm threshold is obviously high. Article 8 currently may be the gateway to Article 14, the freedom from discrimination guarantee (bearing in mind that the UK has not ratified Protocol 12). In other words, if Article 8 is engaged but no violation is found, a violation of Article 14 might nevertheless be found of the two read together (Van Raalte v Netherlands).

Using Article 8 ECHR to advance women’s interests

Under one strand of feminist thinking, it might be argued that the ECHR in general has little to offer women (see, for discussion, Grabham and Hunter ‘Encountering Human Rights’). This is due to a judicial approach to it that values modes of thought that may marginalise women and which pays little attention to ideas about feminist legal method (see Samuels ‘Feminizing  human rights adjudication’), combined with the difficulty of using specific cases to address complex social problems. But, as a number of writers have pointed out, especially recently (see Bauer, ‘Documenting women’s rights violations by non-state actors’), human rights principles can be used as a campaign tool in influencing and mobilising public and community opinion. The use of campaigning methods by feminist advocacy groups, as instanced in the recent successful campaign to remove gender-based hate speech from Facebook, does not preclude mobilising legal channels as a complementary means of disrupting existing social norms adverse to women via deployment of such principles, allowing gender-specific variants of rights’ violations to be recognised. At the same time, the difficulties facing women who seek to use the ECHR should not be under-stated, and Article 8’s protection for family life is gender neutral at face value, meaning that it can also be invoked in ways that could put women and girls at risk by discouraging state actions interfering with family life that are designed to protect vulnerable women (for example, claims by family members convicted of offences relating to domestic violence, including ‘honour’ murder, that post-sentence they should not be deprived of access to surviving family members in furtherance of their family life, as occurred, albeit unsuccessfully, in Ahmad v Brent).

So, in what ways does and could Art 8 especially benefit women and girls?  This blog obviously cannot offer by any means an exhaustive list – each of these matters is complex and has already spawned quite an extensive literature in itself in relation to international human rights’ law – so they can only be touched on here.

Preventing deportation to face adverse treatment based on gender

EM (Lebanon) (FC) (Appellant) (FC) v SSHD concerned a woman who had suffered domestic violence from her husband; as Lord Bingham noted, he had ended her first pregnancy by hitting her on the stomach with a heavy vase, saying he did not want children (para 22). Under Shari’a law as applied in Lebanon, during the first seven years of life, when a male child is cared for by the mother, the father retains legal custody and may decide where the child lives. The transfer to the father at age 7 is automatic: the court has no discretion in the matter and is unable to consider whether the transfer is in the best interests of the child. As a result, Lord Bingham pointed out, women are often constrained to remain in abusive marriages for fear of losing their children (para 24). The evidence was that no family life had been established in Lebanon between the child and his father or his father’s family; it was found that the father had shown no interest in him. The applicant had managed to leave Lebanon with her son and resisted deportation from the UK on the basis of her Article 8 right to respect for family life; as this was a ‘foreign’ case, she had to show that a flagrant violation of Article 8 would arise due to the impact on her family life if she was returned to Lebanon, taking into account that the only family life that had been established was between mother and son. The Lords agreed that on return to Lebanon both the appellant’s and her son’s right to respect for their family life would be flagrantly violated in the sense of being ‘completely denied and nullified’.

Expulsion to face the risk of extremely serious adverse treatment on grounds of gender – ‘honour’ murder (see A.A and others v Sweden) or FGM (Omeredo v Austria) – has been found to fall within Articles 2 or 3. But their status as unqualified or non-materially qualified rights inevitably carries with it the need to show a high threshold of harm, and so places women under serious evidential difficulties, meaning that bringing the claim also under Article 8 (alone and/or combined with Article 14) may be advantageous in such instances.

 Domestic violence – requirement of effective investigations and prevention

 Bevacqva and S v Bulgaria concerned a woman who had been attacked on a number of occasions by her husband and claimed that her requests for a criminal prosecution were rejected on the ground that it was a ‘private matter’. The Court found a violation of Article 8 due to the failure of the state to adopt the measures necessary to punish and control the violent behaviour of her husband. A somewhat similar situation arose in Hajduova v Slovakia; the applicant’s husband had been detained in hospital for psychiatric treatment after he attacked her in public and threatened to kill her. She moved to a refuge with her children. Her ex-husband was released, without having undergone the required treatment, and renewed his threats. Reiterating that Slovakia has a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of individuals, particularly vulnerable victims of domestic violence, the Court found a violation of Article 8 in that, although the applicant’s ex-husband had not assaulted her following his release from hospital, her fear that his threats might be carried out was well-founded and the authorities had failed in their duty to ensure his detention for psychiatric treatment. A similar outcome was reached in Kalucza v. Hungary, which concerned Hungary’s failure to protect Ms Kalucza from her violent former partner. The Court found a violation of Article 8 since the Hungarian authorities had not taken sufficient measures to provide her with effective protection against him, despite criminal complaints lodged against him for assault, repeated requests for a restraining order against him, and civil proceedings to order his eviction from their flat.

These cases succeeded under Article 8, although it is readily arguable that some cases of domestic violence should rather raise issues under Articles 2 and 3, as in Opuz v Turkey which concerned the ‘honour’ murder of the applicant’s mother, who had tried to support the applicant, and repeated ‘honour’ crimes in the form of serious assaults and death threats against the applicant. The Court noted that the national authorities were reluctant to interfere in what they perceived to be a “family matter”. Turkey was found to have violated Article 2 due to its lack of due diligence in taking preventive operational measures to protect the life of the mother and, therefore, in failing in their positive obligation to protect the right to life of the applicant’s mother within the meaning of Article 2. Turkey was also found to have violated Article 3 due to its failure to take protective measures in the form of effective deterrence against serious breaches of the applicant’s personal integrity by her husband.

A number of highly significant findings were made in this context in the very recent case of Eremia and Others v Moldova. The judgment found that, while the authorities took some steps to protect the first applicant from her violent husband, a police officer, over a period of time, the steps were not effective and there was reluctance to take the matter seriously enough. In other words, the failures in the case were redolent of the familiar failings in the previous domestic violence cases considered. But not only were breaches of Articles 8 and 3 (on the basis of the state’s positive obligation to protect persons from inhuman treatment) found, but the Equal Rights Trust, intervening, persuaded the Court to treat domestic violence as a form of gender-based discrimination under Article 14 read with Article 3.  The second and third applicants were the daughters of the first applicant; they complained successfully under Article 8 of the psychological effects of witnessing their mother being physically and verbally abused at their home, while being unable to help, and of verbal abuse on the part of A. The decision represents an important breakthrough in this jurisprudence since the gendered nature of domestic violence – its disproportionate and particular impact on women – was recognised under Article 14, as was the impact of such violence on children forced to witness it, under Article 8.

 Recently in the UK, the IPCC reported adversely on the police investigation into the murder of Maria Stubbings who was strangled in Chelmsford, Essex, in December 2008 by her former boyfriend, Marc Chivers. Essex police knew he had killed before, and that he had served time in prison for assaulting Stubbings, but the IPCC found that they had failed to recognise the seriousness of the danger to her. As a number of journalists have recently pointed out, the Macpherson inquiry found that the police had failed “to provide an appropriate and professional service” with “processes, attitudes and behaviour” harmful to the minority ethnic community when it reported on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Maria Stubbings’ family have called for a similar inquiry into failings in police investigations into domestic violence. The threat and actuality of a possible action under Articles 8, 2, and 3 domestically or at Strasbourg, based on the jurisprudence cited, would be likely to aid campaigns focussing on this issue.

Upholding access to abortion

The recent jurisprudence on abortion at Strasbourg has had some moderate success in alleviating harm to women, by invoking Article 8 (and in some instances Article 3 in RR v Poland and P&S v Poland). The claims so far have been brought against Poland and Ireland (ABC, RR and P&S), but cases against other states are in the Strasbourg system (for example, Z v Moldova). This is not the place to discuss this developing jurisprudence in detail, except to make two points. Poland purports to allow abortion in certain narrow circumstances but, in practice, on religious grounds, places obstacles in the way of obtaining it (RR para 84-86), while Ireland has a virtual prohibition with a narrow exception where there is a serious risk to the life of mother. The suffering of the applicants, especially in the Polish cases so far, has tended to be of a very serious nature (see, eg. Tysiac v Poland, where a complication with pregnancy resulted in blindness). Although Ireland’s current virtual complete prohibition on domestic abortion is largely ineffective due to the availability of abortion in England (ABC), it has been linked to extreme suffering in exceptional circumstances, including the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. This position underpins the paradox of the current jurisprudence which is that cases against Poland are more likely to succeed despite its more liberal regime, since the Court can avoid a full confrontation with Ireland’s Constitutional provision of equal protection for foetal and maternal life.

The recent case of P&S v Poland, the first Strasbourg case on rape-induced pregnancy, graphically illustrates what is wrong with Polish practice on abortion. The first applicant, P, was a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape. She therefore had a legal right to an abortion under Polish law. However, when, supported by her mother, S, she sought to access an abortion in practice, she faced a range of obstructions. The hospital that P approached disclosed her personal and medical information to the media, and the public generally. As a result, she was harassed by anti-abortion activists and representatives of the Catholic Church. She went to three different hospitals but could not obtain genuine information about the requirements for obtaining an abortion. Doctors invoked conscientious objection against performing the abortion and failed to refer P to another hospital. The stance was taken by anti-abortion hospital staff and Church officials, falsely, that S was trying to pressure P into having an abortion against her will. As a result, when P and S sought police protection from anti-abortion activists, the police instead arrested P, removed her from S’s custody and placed her in detention (paras 17, 26, 28 and 29). After delays, P eventually received a legal abortion following an intervention from the Ministry of Health, but she received no post-abortion care (para 41). The Court relied on Tysiąc and RR to reaffirm under Article 8 that once a State has adopted statutory regulations that allow abortion in specified situations, it comes under a duty to make the access available in practice. The Court found a breach of Article 8 on the basis of ‘a striking discordance between the theoretical right to… an abortion…and the reality of its practical implementation’ (para 111).

The situation in Poland may appear to be far removed from that in the UK (apart from in Northern Ireland), but given current attempts to undermine the principle of safe legal abortion by making access to abortion more difficult – in particular by allowing pro-life groups to become involved in counselling abortion-seekers (proposed by Nadine Dorries) and greater protection for conscientious objection (confirmed in a recent case involving Catholic midwives).


This blog has suggested that the guarantee of respect for private and family life under Article 8, taking account of relevant Strasbourg jurisprudence, is leading to developments in human rights principles that reduce gender-based harm to women. A pervasive pessimism in some feminist thinking on the potential of the ECHR to address and reduce such harm may have obscured the potential of such developments, which are also very recent. This blog suggests that a pessimistic view of the ECHR’s potential (and Article 8’s in particular) to aid women who have been let down by courts and legislatures in their own states, should be revisited.