Cabinet to defy UN on abortion reforms despite condemnation of existing laws as 'cruel, inhuman and degrading'

The Government is to defy the United Nations by stalling on abortion reform, despite a condemnation of the existing laws as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

Cabinet to defy UN on abortion reforms despite condemnation of existing laws as 'cruel, inhuman and degrading'

Ruling on a case taken by a Dublin woman forced to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy after a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, the UN Human Rights Committee said the State had subjected her to “intense physical and mental suffering”, to “shame and stigma”, breach of privacy and discrimination.

Amanda Mellet’s treatment amounted to multiple violations of international human rights laws to which Ireland was a signatory, it said, adding that the State was obliged to prevent similar violations occuring in the future through legislation and/or a referendum.

A six-month deadline has been set for the Government to respond with an offer of compensation for Ms Mellet and details of the measures taken to reform the law.

Indications last night, however, were that there would be no budging from the Programme for Government plan to establish a citizens’ assembly to make recommendations on constitutional changes. Under the plan, it could take six months just to set up such a forum.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he found Ms Mellet’s experiences deeply upsetting and wanted to see the issue addressed but he added: “The Government’s commitment to develop a consensus approach with a citizens’ assembly is the way forward.”

Simon Harris
Simon Harris

The Pro Life Campaign criticised the ruling and accused the UN Human Rights Committee of becoming a “lobby group for abortion”.

Spokesperson Cora Sherlock said: “This UN committee is adding hugely to the distress of families whose child had a life-limiting condition before birth, as the committee is without question saying these children are unworthy of any legal protections and therefore have no inherent value.”

Tracey Harkin of Every Life Counts also claimed the UN was “pushing abortion”.

The ruling was warmly welcomed by pro choice groups, including the Centre for Reproductive Rights which helped Ms Mellet take her case, Amnesty International, the National Women’s Council, Irish Famly Planning Association, Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Coalition convenor Ailbhe Smith said the Government must not attempt to hide behind a citizens’ assembly. “The Government today has received its marching orders. It needs to hold a referendum,” she said.

Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty Ireland said a citizens’ assembly might be useful but not if it delayed legislative action. “What we need is legislators legislating,” he said. “It must not be a cynical kicking the can down the road sort of exercise.”

In its ruling, the Human Rights Committee said Ms Mellet was in a vulnerable position after her diagnosis and entitled to the same care as women with stillbirths.

It agreed her pain was exacerbated by having to travel, separation from family, returning while not fully recovered, the expense incurred, denial of post-abortion and bereavement care and the stigma of abortion being a criminal offence in Ireland.

“Many of the described negative experiences she went through could have been avoided if [she] had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of her own country and under the care of the health professionals whom she knew and trusted,” it said.

While her case centred on fatal foetal abnormality, the committee did not limit its comments to abortion in specific circumstances.

In its defence to Ms Mellet’s claims, the State had insisted that the constitutional and legislative approach to abortion was “nuanced and proportionate”.

Ireland can not be forced to comply with the ruling but Mr O’Gorman said to fail to do so would see us branded a “rogue nation”.

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