Wednesday 22 January 2020

UN slams Irish abortion laws after woman was denied termination over fatal foetal abnormalities

(Stock image)
(Stock image)
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A United Nations committee has ruled that Ireland’s abortion laws led to a woman being subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The decision came following a complaint by Wexford woman Siobhán Whelan, who was denied access to an abortion in Ireland in 2010 after it was discovered her unborn child has a fatal foetal abnormality.

It is the second time the UN’s Human Rights Committee has ruled against Ireland in relation to a complaint about the country’s restrictive abortion regime.

Another woman, Amanda Mellett, was awarded compensation by the State after her complaint was upheld by the committee.

In the case of Ms Whelan, the committee decided her human rights were violated and called on Ireland to reform its abortion laws.

It also held that Ireland must make reparations to Ms Whelan for the harm she suffered.

Although the findings are not binding, they do heap further pressure on the Government to bring forward the expected referendum on abortion.

It is also likely that she will be offered compensation.

Ms Whelan discovered in January 2010 that her unborn child was affected by holoprosencephaly, a congenital brain malformation occurring in one in 250 pregnancies.

Only 3pc of holoprosencephalic foetuses survive to delivery.

She was informed by an obstetrician at Wexford General Hospital that the baby would likely die in the womb, and that if it was carried to full term, it would probably die during labour or very soon after birth.

In her complaint, filed with the assistance of the Centre for Reproductive Rights, Ms Whelan complained she was not given further information and was not referred to anyone to discuss the diagnosis, the care she would be offered in Ireland or the possibility of travelling abroad to terminate the pregnancy.

Instead the obstetrician stated she would continue with the pregnancy, attend ante-natal appointments “as normal” and “wait for nature to take its course”.

The diagnosis was confirmed in an additional scan three days later at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin.

It emerged the unborn child was also suffering from Trisomy 13, a chromosomal condition associated with severe intellectual disability and physical abnormalities in many parts of the body.

She was told the condition was “incompatible with life”.

Ms Whelan complained that the hospital’s doctors did not offer any information on counselling services or options open to her.

She sought advice from several crisis pregnancy services, but most said they were only able to assist where pregnancies were no further along than 13 weeks, and she was 21 weeks pregnant.

Eventually, she obtained contact information for Liverpool Women’s Hospital and made arrangements for a termination.

She described feeling like a criminal leaving the country.

After the procedure, the hospital was unable to provide her with any information on bereavement services in Ireland.

She attended a GP on her return home and, although the doctor was sympathetic, she was never offered any grief counselling.

In her complaint she described feeling isolated and grief-stricken.

In a statement, Ms Whelan said she was pleased with the decision of the committee.

“I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the committee for its recognition of the harm I suffered, and the violation of my human rights, as a result of Ireland’s abortion laws,” she said.

“In taking this case, my hope was to bring about a change in our laws so that when faced with the tragic news of a fatal foetal impairment women would have a choice to end the pregnancy in Ireland and not be forced to carry the pregnancy to term or to travel out of the country to access health care services like I had to do.

“When I received the diagnosis, I was told I would have to continue with the pregnancy, since Ireland’s abortion laws do not allow you to end the pregnancy even in these circumstances.

“If I wanted to end the pregnancy, I would have to travel to another jurisdiction.

“This, to me, was very wrong and I knew that the suffering I endured because I had to travel to access health care was inhuman.

“I believe women and couples must be given the best possible care at home at such a difficult time in their lives, including if they decide to terminate the pregnancy, and that there should be equal access to good quality information and care by hospitals countrywide.”

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