All Amnesty wants is for Ireland's abortion laws to respect basic UN human rights
Published 11/07/2015 | 02:30
It has been an interesting few weeks since Amnesty International launched our report on Ireland's abortion laws on June 9. Ireland was selected as a focus country in Amnesty's global 'My Body My Rights' campaign because its abortion law is one of the most restrictive in the world, seriously violating women's and girls' human rights. Our campaign on Ireland has received an enormous level of engagement and support.
We have also had the expected objections, including by writers in this paper.
When Amnesty adds to the human rights issues it works on (this is not new - Amnesty has been working on abortion since 2007), this can challenge people's comfort zones and provoke strong responses.
Frequently, the first complaint is that we should stick to prisoners of conscience. This is what Ian O'Doherty (June 14) bemoans: that when Amnesty worked just on "raising the plight of prisoners of conscience" we were "seen as the good guys", unifying Irish society. Our work on abortion now makes us "left-wing" in his eyes. It has been 14 years since we expanded our mandate to the full spectrum of human rights, beyond (but not dropping) prisoners of conscience and fair trial rights. Rights like women's and girls' sexual and reproductive rights are not 'left-wing' or 'political' - they are real rights equally deserving of our attention.
And a new frontier has opened - accusations that Amnesty does not understand or is misrepresenting human rights law. That the UN's human rights treaty bodies themselves are distorting human rights. Eamon Delaney (June 16) criticises our campaign because he considers abortion "a very dubious concept of a 'human right', given that many would consider abortion to be the very opposite - a denial of a human right to the unborn".
David Quinn (June 12), in a piece deploring the UN's human rights system generally, says its "treaties and covenants are not legally binding on us". Dr Ruth Cullen (June 26) writes of the "false idea that abortion is a human right".
While we could simply ignore such misrepresentations, we will not, because this is too serious an issue for the women and girls whose rights we are campaigning for.
So here are some basic facts. The UN's human rights treaties were not created by Amnesty but by states, including Ireland. These treaties are not imposed on states - but once states ratify them, they are legally binding. Ireland has ratified these treaties. The rights set out in the treaties are expressed in broad terms, leaving it to expert treaty bodies (also created and elected by states like Ireland) to interpret their precise meaning on an evolving basis. Treaty bodies are very clear that women and girls have a human right to abortion, at a minimum when they are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, where their life or health is at risk, or where there is a fatal or severe foetal impairment. States may go further, but denying abortion in these minimum circumstances is a violation of women's and girls' rights to life, health, information and freedom from torture or other ill-treatment.
Treaty bodies are also clear that making it a criminal offence - as Ireland does - for a woman to have an abortion is a violation of her human rights. The human rights framework was created by states (again, not by Amnesty) on the basis that it applies to born people. Like most rights, women's right to abortion is not unlimited: states may put in place reasonable restrictions like gestational limits, so for example, states can ban late-term abortions.
People have a human right - one that AI has defended throughout its existence - to their beliefs, religion, views and opinions on matters like abortion. But they cannot impose them on others - this is why the human rights framework was created by states to balance competing rights.
Quinn makes dramatic claims of the UN eroding Ireland's sovereignty or independence, saying we should "win back our independence". Nothing is stopping Ireland from withdrawing from human rights treaties. But why would anyone want that? They protect all our rights - in Ireland and around the world.
And none of this scaremongering is actually stopping the 4,000 women and girls travelling outside Ireland every year for abortions. Or assisting those who will take abortion pills without medical supervision … and break the law.
The 1983 Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is causing hidden harm and suffering. It is making it impossible for medical professionals to give their patients the services that should be their right - they too could face a 14-year prison term. The only thing the 2013 Act does for women and girls is purport to stop them dying.
We cannot view the world through a narrow lens of the human rights we want to acknowledge, and deny those that make us uncomfortable. It is precisely because of the complexity of human lives that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN's human rights treaties were adopted. Setting out all the rights of all people - not some of the rights of a few.
This is a state that wants to uphold human rights. But this Government, and many previous ones, are perfectly aware that they are violating women's human rights. They are fully aware of their obligations - legally binding obligations taken on voluntarily - and they are let off the hook every time a swipe is instead taken at us or the UN.
Amnesty is not interested in being lauded as "the good guys". Many issues we work on today were contentious when we started - like the death penalty or the 'war on terror'. We do not pick the 'popular' rights. The majority of Irish people are in favour of what we are seeking. So let's open up the debate, but calmly, respectfully and truthfully.