The rights of the unborn: a troubling decision from the High Court?

Mairead Enright (@maireadenright)

Does the unborn have rights other than the right to life enshrined in the 8th Amendment?

It is clear that, under Irish law, foetuses cannot have any greater rights than children already born.[1] However, recent cases have raised the prospect that they have some of the same rights and interests as born children. In PP v. HSE,[2] for instance, the High Court referred to the ‘best interests’ of the foetus who has no prospect of survival outside the womb, analogising its position to that of a child on life support. It is not clear that the ‘unborn’ (the entity recognised or created by the 8th Amendment) is, for constitutional purposes, a child like any other. Recently, the courts have been asked to consider whether foetuses carried by Irish citizens have particular rights other than the right to life, which the state should take into account in assessing whether to deport their non-citizen fathers. Another, broader, way of putting this question is to ask whether the unborn’s rights derive exclusively from the 8th Amendment, or whether it may also enjoy rights grounded in other parts of the Constitution.

The position: foetuses may be treated as having constitutional rights other than the right to life.

In E[3] (the case of Kunle Eluhanla) Irvine J. applied an old common law maxim that the unborn should be treated as born in law where its interests require it. This meant that the Minister for Justice, in deciding whether to deport E’s father should have treated the then unborn  E as if he was born. In practice this meant that Michael McDowell as Minister for Justice should have taken into account E’s rights to the society and support of his parents, amongst many others. In taking this step Irvine J. paid particular attention to the fact that the Minister had been notified of E’s impending birth at the time he made his decision, but ultimately decided to make his order just 9 days before E was born. Irvine J. was struck by the injustice of allowing the Minister to take capricious advantage of the circumstances of pregnancy and childbirth, noting that if E had been born prematurely, the Minister would have had to take his existence and needs into account in making the decision.

She held that the unborn,in cases of this kind, can be treated as having all of the personal rights of the citizen under Article 40.3 of the Constitution.These rights were enumerated in G v. An Bord Uchtala[4] (a case about ‘illegitimate children’) and include the ‘right to bodily integrity, the right to be reared with due regard to religious, moral, intellectual, physical and social welfare, to be fed, to be educated, to work and to enjoy personal dignity… ’. As Irvine J. noted, these are the “natural and imprescriptible rights of all children”, now recognised in Article 42A of the Constitution.

The Ugbelese position: the rights of the foetus are confined to those conferred by the 8th Amendment.

In the later case of Ugbelese,[5] by contrast, Cooke J. took the position that the unborn does not have any rights other than the right to life.[6] Cooke J. argued that Irvine J. over-extended the common law maxim mentioned above, which he argued had previously only been used in a backward-looking way, to allow financial recovery for injuries suffered in the womb, and not to allow assertion of future rights before birth.

In any event, he argued that her decision was inconsistent with the Constitution. For Cooke J. the purpose and effect of the 8th Amendment is to definitively set out all of the rights of the unborn .Indeed, whereas Irvine J. derives the unborn’s rights to family life from Article 40.3, Cooke J. notes that the 8th Amendment is a specific amendment to that Article, indicating that the unborn is not intended to enjoy those personal rights as born citizens do. Before 1983, he argued, there had been some limited judicial discussion of the rights of the unborn (McGeeFinn v. AG and G v. An Bord Uchtala), but these were not definitive: the Amendment was intended to clear up this uncertainty. The Amendment does not give any rights to the unborn other the right to life (which for Cooke J. also  implies the right to bodily integrity; the right to protection from any wilful interference with the natural course of gestation.)   Any additional rights of the child are prospective and inchoate until birth, when they can be exercised in society and community as an independent person.

So, after Ugbelese, the High Court had taken two distinct stances on this question. Recently, Humphreys J. decided between them.

Humphreys J. chooses the position: the IRM case.

In IRM v. MJELR,[7] Humphreys J. was asked to determine whether the State in deciding whether to deport the father of unborn child of an Irish citizen is obliged to consider the unborn’s future rights to family life as well as its the right to life enjoyed under the 8th Amendment.

Humphreys J prefers the reasoning of Irvine J. in E, and holds that in deportation cases, the state must consider the family rights that the unborn will enjoy in the future. He rejects the Cooke argument in Ugbelese (above) that the 8th Amendment was intended to completely embody all of the unborn’s rights. His judgment criticises Cooke J. at length for his excessively ‘literal’ reading of the 8th Amendment,[8] which Humphreys J. contends is incompatible with the principle that the constitution is to be read as a whole.[9] In addition, whereas Cooke J. presents the 8th Amendment as resolving a problem of uncertainty about the status of the unborn in Irish law pre-1983, Humphreys J. argues that the obiter statements about foetal life in McGeeFinn v. AG and G v. An Bord Uchtala clearly indicate that the rights of the unborn pre-dated the Amendment, and were simply confirmed or supplemented by the Amendment.

Humphreys J. goes on to specify the following rights of the unborn:

  • Humphreys J. agrees with Irvine J. that the unborn may be treated as having a right to family life. Irvine J. derived this from the personal rights provisions of the Constitution in Article 40.3. Since her judgment was delivered, the people have added a new provision to the Constitution and Humphreys J. relies on it here. He holds that Article 42A (the Children’s Rights Amendment) by its specific reference to “all children” is intended to protect unborn as well as born children. To bolster this interpretation, he cites several examples of laws which use the phrase ‘unborn child’, and emphasises that ‘expectant parents’ recognise the unborn as a child.[11] He criticises the state’s arguments to the contrary for excessive literalism.[12] Humphreys J. recognises that the unborn will not enjoy all of the rights contemplated under Article 42A, insofar as it cannot effectively exercise them. But this in itself does not unseat the argument that the unborn is a child for constitutional purposes. In this respect, he analogises the unborn to the profoundly disabled born child.[13]  
  • He also argues (probably obiter) that the unborn has the right to health, and not merely the right to bodily integrity as a corollary of the right to life.[10] The difference between Cooke J. above and Humphreys J. here is a matter of degree, but Humphreys J. argues that the foetus has a right to be protected from injury to health as well as from the health/bodily integrity consequences of exposure to a risk to life. This principle, if extended to an appropriate case, could have an impact on women’s decision-making in pregnancy outside of the abortion context. See further here.
  • In support of his extension of the rights of the unborn beyond the right to life, he notes that the unborn is already recognised as having a number of statutory and common law rights additional to the right to life, including:
    • The right to litigate.
    • The right to succeed to property.
    • The right to sue in tort, once born, for injuries sustained in the womb.
    • The right to health and welfare, which implicitly grounds the Child and Family Agency’s practice in child protection cases where there are concerns around a pregnant woman’s capacity to care for her child once born.
    • The right of a stillborn child to recognition of his/her identity.
    • At an international level, Humphreys J. cites paragraph 9 of the UNCRC as establishing the unborn’s right to special protection and care before birth. Notably, he does not discuss the European Convention on Human Rights, which does not recognise rights of the unborn.

Humphreys J’s judgment reflects an obvious frustration with a state which wishes, in his view to have its cake and eat it – holding the unborn as sacrosanct but not affording it any rights which would inconvenience the state. However, in respect of family life, this is not a judgment about the constitutional rights which the foetus automatically enjoys in the womb. Humphreys J. did not have to resort to the legal fiction used in E because IRM was framed as a test case on the very question of the extent of the rights of the unborn in deportation cases. However, his judgment, like Irvine’s judgment in E is designed to compel the state to have regard to ‘the prospective situation which is likely to unfold, and particularly such rights arising from a child’s status as a citizen as are likely to exist, rather than the state of affairs as it exists as a snapshot on the date which the Minister’s decision is made in isolation from matters which are imminently prospective as a matter of likelihood’.[14] He argues that under the old decision in East Donegal Co-Operative v. AG the state is required to guard against prospective threats to constitutional rights.

What does this mean for campaigns for liberalisation of Irish abortion law?

Some of the language employed in Humphreys J’s judgment is worryingly reminiscent of pro-life literature. At various points he refers to the state as ‘sneering’ at the rights of the unborn; notes that all adults were ‘unborn’ once, and argues that the unborn must be a child in principle because happy expectant parents think of their pregnancies in this way.The troubling analogy drawn between foetuses and profoundly disabled born children noted above also calls to mind anti-abortion campaigners’ appropriation of disabled people’s experience. Ultimately, his failure to consider, even in passing, the wider repercussions for women of his approach to the unborn is cause for concern. However, even if his judgment is good law (and a Supreme Court which takes a more restrained approach to constitutional interpretation is unlikely to think so), it is of limited relevance to the campaign for repeal of the 8th Amendment.

  1. These cases are not decisions about foetuses. They are decisions about Irish citizen children who were already born when the judges heard their cases. The judgments consider deportation decisions made in respect of their fathers before their births.
  2. These cases are not about the rights which foetuses have before they are born. As discussed above, they are clearly cases about the state’s duty to consider their future post-birth rights when considering deportation of their fathers.
  3. These decisions are products of a laudable judicial effort to preserve limited space for parent-child relationships within an unjust immigration system which has for a long time demonised migrant family-making. They cannot sensibly be extended beyond that context.
  4. The constitutional problem at stake here is very different from that which arises when a woman needs an abortion. Humphreys J. and Irvine J. have attempted to acknowledge rights of the unborn which are, in the immigration context, entirely congruent with the rights of the prospective parents. (Similarly, the examples of additional common law or statutory rights of the unborn listed by Humphreys J. directly advance the interests of born persons connected to the unborn, and either do not conflict with the rights of the pregnant woman, or are carefully balanced against those rights.) In addition, the right recognised in these cases need only be ‘considered by the state’. The rights of the unborn cannot absolutely restrict the state’s entitlement to deport its parent: the burden on the state here is very light. By contrast, in constitutional terms, abortion involves a direct and serious conflict between the rights of the unborn and the rights of the pregnant woman. These cases do not tell us anything in principle about how such conflicts should be resolved.
  5. It is especially difficult to imagine how Article 42A might be applied to abortion after repeal of the 8th. Courts are generally careful to confine the application of constitutional provisions to the areas of social life which they were intended to regulate, particularly where morally controversial activities are concerned.[15] The campaign to add Article 42A to the Constitution focused on establishing children as rights-holders independent of their parents. It did not centre on abortion and so it is reasonably clear that the people in voting on Article 42A did not intend it to apply to this context.
  6. If the unborn enjoys additional personal rights, they are not absolute rights. Outside of the direct abortion context, the courts have repeatedly stated that in interpreting the unborn child’s rights (including in deciding how and when the unborn child’s right to life applies) the courts must bear the countervailing rights of the mother – particularly her rights to bodily integrity and privacy – in mind.[16]
  7. There is an argument that, even if the 8th Amendment were repealed, these additional rights of the unborn and the right to life of the unborn could nevertheless survive within the Constitution. For example, post-repeal, we might see the Supreme Court affirm the existence of those rights in an Article 26 reference or in a constitutional challenge to future abortion legislation. A similar argument has already been made in respect of judgments like McGeeFinn v. AG, Norris and G v. An Bord Uchtala (see the disagreement between Cooke J and Humphreys J. above). Even if this argument holds some weight (and the weight it holds would depend on the preferences and makeup of the Supreme Court at the time) it is unlikely that it would cause  future post-8th abortion legislation to be struck down as unconstitutional. The Constitution is a living document which is to be interpreted in light of prevailing ideas and concepts (McGee v. AG). Successful repeal of the 8th Amendment, particularly in the context of a campaign which has and will emphasise the rights and experience of women, would send a strong signal to the Supreme Court that the Constitution was longer to be interpreted as it is under the X case. A future Supreme Court, considering post-repeal abortion legislation, is likely to be concerned with a balancing of the rights of foetus and pregnant woman, rather than with the application of a near-absolute foetal right to life. Amendment or replacement of the 8th, to provide an explicit constitutional right to abortion could, of course, help to restrain the judiciary in this area.
  8. Any argument that these judgments are an uncomplicated victory for human rights depends on ignoring serious questions of race and gender inequality. For instance, it appears that the rights recognised in E and IRM only apply to the unborn children of Irish citizens – this is the legacy of the citizenship referendum. The Supreme Court had already established that the right to life of the unborn child of non-citizens cannot pose an obstacle to its mother’s deportation.[17] In addition IRM recognises the rights of the unborn while dismissing the argument advanced on behalf of the pregnant woman that her mental health might require her partner’s deportation to be stalled so that he could be present to support her at the birth of her child.[18] A woman will also need to prove something approaching risk to life, or inhuman and degrading treatment related to the deportation before her pregnancy can operate to stall her own deportation.[20]  

Footnotes:

[1] Baby O [2002] 2 IR 169

[2] [2014] IEHC 622. See further http://humanrights.ie/gender-sexuality-and-the-law/pp-v-hse-futility-dignity-and-the-best-interests-of-the-unborn-child/

[3] [2008] IEHC 68

[4] [1980] IR 32, 69

[5] Ugbelese [2009] IEHC 598. was preferred by Hogan J. in A v MJELR [2001] IEHC 397. E was cited approvingly by MacEochaidh J in FO v. Minister for Justice [2013] IEHC 236 and again in Dos Santos v. Minister for Justice [2013] IEHC 237, appearing to equate the rights of the unborn child in the context of deportation with the rights of children generally.

[6] Cooke J. also argues that he is not bound by the judgment in E because Irvine J. did not intend her judgment to be determinative of the constitutional issue of the rights of the unborn.

[7] 29 July 2016

[8] p.31

[9] p. 21

[10] p. 22

[11] p.29

[12] p.30

[13] p.30

[14] p.33

[15] See e.g. Baby O [2002] 2 IR 169 and Roche v. Roche [2009] IESC 82

[16] Baby O [2002] 2 IR 169 (right to bodily integrity); Ugbelese [2009] IEHC 598 (right to travel and privacy); PP v HSE [2014] IEHC 622 (right to dignity in death)

[17] Baby O [2002] 2 IR 169. See further Ruth Fletcher here.

[18] p. 19.

[19] p. 38

[20] Aslam v. MJELR [2011] IEHC 12

The rights of the unborn: a troubling decision from the High Court?

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