A mirror has been held up to us by the UN on abortion – so let's address our failings
Published 25/07/2014 | 02:30
The United Nations Committee on Human Rights is chaired by an eminent champion of human rights, Sir Nigel Rodley. Anybody called Sir Nigel suggesting what the Irish should do with their Constitution is likely to be met with resistance. However, he has shown enormous sympathy to the women in Ireland and the committee has clarified some areas that might have been difficult for successive governments to come to grips with.
During the hearings, Sir Nigel confessed that he was unable to understand how a woman could be 'doomed' to continue a pregnancy 'regardless of the health consequences' and 'at the risk of criminal penalties'. He cited pregnancy as a result of rape 'where the woman doesn't even bear any responsibility and is by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more'.
We must remember that as a nation we have signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This is not a case of an external body monitoring our rights legislation. We are part of this international diplomatic caring organisation. Therefore, we believe it is wrong to impose inhuman and degrading treatment on any human being and that we must protect the minority against the will of a biased majority.
Yesterday the Human Rights Committee issued their response to the Irish delegation's presentation at the Fourth Period Examination on July 14. In its concluding observations, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its previous concern regarding the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion in Ireland, because of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and its strict interpretation.
They expressed concern over six issues, in particular, the criminalisation of abortion under Section 22 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, including in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and serious risks to the health of the mother, which may lead up to 14 years of imprisonment. They also concluded with their concern over the severe mental suffering caused by the denial of abortion services to women seeking abortions due to rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.
They noted the lack of legal and procedural clarity concerning what constitutes 'real and substantive risk' to the life, as opposed to the health, of the pregnant women. Thirdly, they were concerned about the requirement of an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals for pregnant and suicidal women leading to further mental distress.
They also considered the economic situation and the discriminatory impact of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act on women who are unable to travel abroad to seek abortions. They cited the severe restrictions on the channels via which information on crisis pregnancy options may be provided to women and the imposition of criminal sanctions on healthcare providers who refer women to abortion services outside Ireland under the Regulation of Information Act of 1995.
In uncompromising terms, the Human Rights Committee stated that Ireland should revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother or fatal foetal abnormality. Stating that Ireland should quickly adopt the Guidance Document to clarify what constitutes a 'real and substantive risk' to the life of the pregnant woman, and Ireland should consider making more information on crisis pregnancy options available through a variety of channels, and ensure that healthcare providers who provide information on safe abortion services abroad are not subject to criminal sanctions.
It is 40 years since Mary McGee took a case against the State to allow contraceptives to be sold to married couples. Prior to that there was no such thing as a right to marital privacy. It is almost 20 years since the introduction of divorce. Our society has not fallen apart. If anything, it is not the private individual that we found we could not trust but the church and the Government.
A mirror has been held up to Ireland, our laundry has been hung out for inspection and it's not good – symphysiotomy sufferers, mass graves of infants, Magdalene laundries, institutional violence, victims of rape, incest and the tragedy of fatal foetal abnormality. Is this the kind of nation we want to be? The reform of Article 40.3.3 is not about being modern or progressive or feminist or liberated, it is about preventing inhuman and degrading treatment to women.