Hearing with the Delegation for Women’s Rights of the French Senate and National Assembly on Ireland’s Abortion Legislation

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Claire Nevin.

On the 17th January, 1975, France decriminalised abortion with the passing of the Loi Simone Veil. Forty years later, and in stark contrast to a much more liberal European consensus on abortion and international human rights norms, Ireland remains one of a small minority of countries, including Malta and Poland, which stubbornly cling to oppressive abortion legislation. In the case of Ireland, a woman is liable for a fourteen year prison sentence if she aborts in Ireland.

On the 7th September 2015, the Senator for French Expatriates, Olivier Cadic, was in Dublin on a constituency visit. As Senator for French Expatriates, his mandate requires him to visit specifically allocated countries in order to keep up-to-date with matters relating to the French community abroad. The recent forty year anniversary of the passing of the Loi Simone Veil caused him to take an active interest in the continuing criminalisation of abortion in Ireland and he requested to meet with someone who could inform him about the consequences of Irish abortion legislation during his visit to Dublin. 

Having recently graduated with a master’s degree in human rights and democratisation from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, where I wrote my master’s thesis on Irish abortion discourse, and having previously met the Senator in 2012 while I was a history student in a Parisian university, he was pointed in my direction. During our meeting, he was shocked to discover the oppressive nature of Ireland’s abortion legislation. He was particularly horrified to hear of tragic cases such as Savita, Ms. Y and PP v. HSE, stating that he was not aware of the full extent of the harm inflicted on women’s lives and wellbeing by the 8th amendment.

Senator Cadic expressed the belief that increased pressure from fellow EU member states could play a positive role in pushing for a change in Ireland’s abortion legislation, as so far, EU member states and the European Court of Human Rights have taken a conservative approach to this issue, based on the argument that Ireland’s exceptionalism regarding abortion falls within its ‘margin of appreciation.’ Senator Cadic wants to play a role in attempting to reverse this trend and promote greater consciousness-raising amongst EU member states that Ireland’s abortion legislation and its resulting consequences constitute an urgent human rights issue that deserves due attention at European level.

Senator Cadic and I decided that appealing to EU member states’ vested interest in protecting the rights of their expatriates was an angle that could convince fellow member states that the continuing criminalisation of abortion in Ireland also affects them and their citizens. In order to achieve this and promote greater awareness of and concern for this issue at European level, we decided to stress that freedom of movement within the European Union and the popularity of university exchanges such as the Erasmus programme, result in women who choose to come to Ireland having less rights than in their home countries.

Following on from our meeting in Dublin, Senator Cadic invited me and elected representative for French Expatriates in Ireland, Laurence Helaili, to Paris to speak at the French Senate in front of Senators and the French Delegation of Women’s Rights about Ireland’s abortion legislation. The aim of the visit would be to establish the role that France could play in promoting greater dialogue between Ireland and fellow EU member states on aligning Ireland’s abortion legislation with European consensus and international reproductive rights norms. The 28th October was chosen for the hearing at the Senate; the 28th October 2015 being the third anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died as a result of the ‘chilling effect’ of the 8th amendment on Savita’s doctors ability to intervene and provide her with a medically necessary and potentially life-saving abortion.

The meeting with the Delegation for Women’s Rights, presided over by former Minister for the Environment, Senator Chantal Jouanno, was an extremely productive one. Having listened to my presentation on Ireland’s abortion legislation and specific examples from recent years which demonstrate it to be an inherently flawed and harmful piece of legislation, Senator Jouanno did not hesitate to tell me that she feels ‘very afraid for French women living in Ireland.’ By the end of the day, I was starting to get used to being met with disbelief and indignation as I described and answered questions about Ireland’s approach to abortion. This initially surprised me as I had taken for granted that members of another EU member state’s Delegation for Women’s Rights would have been aware of such a glaring example of exceptionalism on a human rights issue within the European Union.

The Delegation for Women’s Rights were of the opinion that more information and greater consciousness-raising within the European Union would be necessary in order to establish dialogue between Ireland and other member states on the need to repeal the 8th amendment and replace it with medically sound and accessible abortion legislation that coheres with human rights standards in the area of sexual and reproductive health. To that end, the Delegation decided to inform French citizens intending to move to Ireland of the rights that they would no longer have regarding their lives, health and choices, upon arrival in Ireland. This will be done by including a section detailing Ireland’s abortion legislation on the information page for expatriates of the French Ministry for Foreign Affair’s website. Senator Jouanno will also write to the French Ambassador to Ireland so that women already in Ireland can be informed and know that their embassy will support them if they need any information.

The day after my visit to the French Senate, I was invited to visit Amnesty International France’s headquarters to discuss the events in the Senate, along with Amnesty’s ongoing My Body My Rights Campaign. Yves Prigent, who is responsible for Amnesty France’s involvement in this campaign, stated that the approach undertaken at the Senate in order to lobby for greater awareness of and pressure to change Ireland’s abortion legislation at European level by appealing to member states’ mutual interest in protecting the lives and health of their expatriates in Ireland, was an ‘ingenious approach.’

Based on such positive feedback and on the receptiveness of the French Senators and Women’s Rights Delegation, I decided that this work should be expanded and built upon by liaising with the embassies of other EU member states in Ireland, with the aim of establishing cooperation along the lines of that which resulted from my meeting at the French Senate. To that end, I am currently in talks with Irish pro-choice organisations about co-signing a letter with that will be send to embassies in Ireland, encouraging other EU member states to take similar interest in the lives and health of their female expatriates. In the letter, I will request to meet with ambassadors and encourage them to take similar steps to France in ensuring that their expatriates are informed of the risks they run in Ireland as a result of the 8th amendment.

Finally, a more political approach would also be advantageous to ensure that the visit to the Senate will resonate with Irish political parties in the run up to the General Election. The letter to the ambassadors will therefore be followed by another letter, also co-signed by pro-choice organisations, which will be sent to all of the Irish political parties to inform them of the steps taken at the French Senate and of the follow on work being done to encourage other member states to take a similar approach. We will highlight the potentially harmful repercussions of such negative perceptions of Ireland abroad, particularly in light of Senator Jouanno’s comment about being ‘afraid’ for French women in Ireland. We will seek responses that clearly outline how parties plan to approach the abortion issue and what steps they will take to align Ireland’s abortion legislation with international human rights standards.


Hearing with the Delegation for Women’s Rights of the French Senate and National Assembly on Ireland’s Abortion Legislation

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