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UN asks Ireland why government has not organised a referendum on abortion

The UN committee grilled Ireland on women’s rights, direct provision and equality legislation.

United Nations Offices, Geneva.
United Nations Offices, Geneva.
Image: Shutterstock/Martin Good

THE UNITED NATIONS grilled Ireland on many aspects relating to human rights, ranging from Magdalene laundries, abortion, direct provision and women’s rights over the last two days.

A delegation headed up by the Minister of State for Development, Trade Promotion and North South Cooperation of Ireland, Sean Sherlock, made representations to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The UN committee said Ireland has one of the “most punitive and restrictive laws” on abortion because of the constitutional right to life of an unborn foetus, which trumped the right of women to sexual and reproductive health and resulted in the criminalisation of abortion.

Pregnancy as result of a crime, such as rape or incest

Experts asked about the recourse for women whose pregnancies presented a risk to their own lives, or were the results of a crime, such as rape or incest.

The UN committee also asked why did the Government not organise a referendum on abortion.

It was also concerned about what steps had been taken to disseminate the knowledge among women and their doctors about the guidelines and their Constitutional right to life-saving abortion.

The Irish delegation explained to the committee that the law on abortion was indeed “very limited” and abortion was prohibited except in very limited cases when the life of the woman was at risk.

It said the risk could only be averted by the termination of the pregnancy.

The Irish delegation told the UN committee that a Constitutional referendum would be needed to broaden the scope of the abortion law to include cases of rape, incest or foetal anomaly.

Women’s rights

The committee said that women’s rights still fell short of equality, as evidenced by the gender pay gap and the low percentage of women in the work place, and the delegation was asked about the plan to overcome gender inequality.

Direct provision was also raised, whereby the committee said the system “violated a number of rights of asylum seekers”, and was an issue of concern to committee members.

It also noted that legislation in Ireland did not cover all grounds of discrimination and experts asked whether a comprehensive law to this effect would be passed.

Experts expressed concern about discrimination in the education system against migrant children, minority children, and children with disabilities.

It asked about measures to set up secular schools, and the change in laws which prevented children from enrolling in some schools based on their religion and confession.

The UN committee were told that the scale of the challenge facing the Irish Government since the economic crisis had begun had been “gargantuan”.

It said revenues had collapsed by €10 billion during the period 2007-2010, adding that the government had cut spending and introduced “new taxes”.

No plans for to widen discrimination grounds

In relation to the traveller and roma community, the Irish delegation told the UN committee today that there were no plans to widen discrimination grounds in the legislation because there was ample discrimination and equality legislation in place that protected citizens. 

In concluding remarks, Sherlock said that Ireland respected the weight of the opinion of the Committee Experts and took the process very seriously.

He said that in spite of the very tough decisions made over the past several years, Ireland had tried to ensure that the social protection floors were there and would endeavour to raise living standards for its citizens.

Waleed Sadi, Committee Chairperson, said the discussions with the Irish team had been “very fruitful” and said the committee “had learned a lot”.

The committee will release its formal, written concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of Ireland towards the end of its three-week session, which will conclude on 19 June 2015.

Read: 177,000 women have left Ireland for abortions since 1971>

Read: UK doctor and two nurses charged after woman travelling from Ireland died following abortion>

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