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UN: Ireland must take action to decriminalise abortion

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill comes in for particular criticism from the UN Human Rights Committee.

Image: stock image via Shutterstock

IRELAND’S LAWS IN the area of abortion have come in for severe criticism in the latest observations from the UN Human Rights Committee.

The international body has today released a hard-hitting, eight-page document of “concluding observations” which also criticise Ireland’s handling of the symphysiotomy controversy and lack of progress investigating the institutional abuse of women and children in mother-and-baby homes.

It follows Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald’s appearance in Geneva to defend Ireland’s human rights record earlier this month.

Abortion

The Committee reiterates its earlier criticisms of the “highly restrictive” circumstances in which a woman can lawfully have an abortion in Ireland.

Last year’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, introduced in the wake of the controversy surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar, also comes in for particular focus.

The panel says it has particular concern over:

  • (i) 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 to up to 14 years of imprisonment, except in cases that constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of a pregnant women.
  • (ii) 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.
  • (iii) The requirement of an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals for pregnant and suicidal women leading to further mental distress
  • (iv) The discriminatory impact of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act on women who are unable to travel abroad to seek abortions.
  • (v) The strict 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 the State party under the Regulation of Information (Services outside the state for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act of 1995.
  • (vi) The severe mental suffering caused by the denial of abortion services to women seeking abortions due to rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or serious risks to health.

And it says the State should:

  • (a) 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.
  • (b) Swiftly adopt the Guidance Document to clarify what constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of the pregnant woman; and
  • (c) 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.

The recommendations were welcomed by support group TFMR which said:

The time for change in this area is well beyond overdue. TFMR Ireland continue to be contacted weekly by distraught women who find themselves in this horrendous and heart-breaking situation.
There is absolutely no excuse to continue to compound the suffering of a woman facing the loss of a much wanted baby.
The government is acutely aware of the issue, and of its impact on women and their families, and it is their job as legislators to resolve this barrier to services which women urgently require.

Symphysiotomy

Ireland should open a “prompt, independent and thorough investigation” into cases of symphysiotomy, the panel recommended.

The Committee said it was concerned at the State’s failure to initiate a comprehensive probe into the matter.

And it said Ireland should also identify, prosecute and punish – where still possible – the perpetrators for performing a symphysiotomy without a patient’s consent.

Institutional Abuse

Flowers for Magdalenes remembrance Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The panel also expresses concern over “the lack of prompt, independent, thorough and effective investigations into all allegations of abuse, mistreatment or neglect of women and children in the Magdalene Laundries, children’s institutions, and mother-and-baby homes”.

It particularly highlights the failure to identify all of the the perpetrators of abuse, the low number of prosecutions and “the failure to provide full and effective remedies to victims”.

It recommends:

The State party should conduct prompt, independent and thorough investigation into all allegations of abuse in Magdalene Laundries, children’s institutions and mother and baby homes, prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offence, and ensure that all victims obtain an effective remedy, including appropriate compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and measures of satisfaction.

Violence against women

Domestic and sexual abuse of women remains a “serious problem” in Ireland, according to the Committee.

It says there are are a number of “administrative and financial obstacles” for marginalised women in particular to access support services, particularly “women whose immigration status is dependent on her spouse or partner”.

The recommendations:

The State party should take further legislative as well as policy measures to ensure that all women, particularly women from vulnerable and marginalized groups, have equal access to protection against perpetrators of violence.It should also establish a systematic data collection system to inform current and future policies and priorities, and provide, in its next periodic report, disaggregated statistics on complaints, prosecutions and sentences regarding violence against women.

The Committee also criticises the slow pace in modifying the use of language in the Constitution, regarding “the role of women in the home“.

And it says that despite the adoption of the Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Act 2012, which encourages political parties to establish a quota for female candidates, “women continue to be underrepresented in both public and private sectors, particularly in decision-making positions”.

Policing and prisons

GSOC — the Garda watchdog body — also comes in for criticism in today’s list of observations.

The Committee expresses concern at the ability of the body ”to function independently and effectively, including the requirement of an approval from the Minister of Justice to examine police practices, policies and procedures, and the length of time taken to complete investigations due to lack of cooperation” by gardaí.

And it recommends

  • The State party should proceed with the timely adoption of the General Scheme of the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Bill 2014 to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
  • It should also ensure that the proposed establishment of the Garda Síochána Authority does not encroach upon or undermine the work of GSOC, but rather complement and support it.

Regarding the Prison Service, the panel says that while it welcomes measures taken to improve conditions of detention, it remains concerned over lack of in-cell sanitation and the lack of segregation between convicted criminals and people who are remanded in custody in advance of a trial.

According to the Committee:

The State party should step up its efforts to improve the living conditions and treatment of detainees and address overcrowding and the practice of “slopping out” as a matter of urgency in line with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (U.N. Doc. E/5988 (1977)). It should establish a concrete timeline for the achievement of complete separation of remand and sentenced prisoners, juvenile and adult prisoners and detained immigrants and sentenced prisoners. It should also implement the new complaints model for all categories of complaints without further delay and ensure its independent functioning.

Additionally, the Committee expresses concern at “the number of persons being imprisoned for failure to pay fines”.

Travellers and the Roma community

Last year’s removal of two Roma children from their families in Dublin and Athlone comes in for particular criticism from the UN committee.

While it also points to “the lack of progress in implementing its previous recommendations to recognize Travellers as an ethnic minority”.

Its recommendations in the area:

  • The State party should take concrete steps to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority group, and amend the Housing Act of 2002 to meet the specific accommodation requirements of Traveller families.
  • In light of the abolishment of the National Action Plan Against Racism, the State party should adopt an effective policy and action plan, developed in consultation with Traveller and Roma communities, to redress situations of inequality.

You can find the full list of observations made by the committee here.

Ireland at the UN: We have ‘no solution’ for women who can’t afford to travel for an abortion

UN told symphysiotomy patients were ‘operated upon wide awake and often screaming’

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