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Opinion A woman pregnant by rape is treated as 'a vessel and nothing more' by Irish law

The UN criticised Ireland’s abortion laws and lambasted the State for failing “to assign any accountability” to issues like Magdalene Laundries, mother-and-baby homes, child abuse and symphysiotomy.

AT THE CONCLUSION of Ireland’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva yesterday, a surge of energy penetrated the normally sombre Committee room when the Chair of the Committee highlighted a series of human rights abuses which, he said, could not be disconnected from the “institutional belief system” which has predominated in the State.

Sir Nigel Rodley, referred to the Magdalene Laundries, mother-and-baby homes, child abuse and the practice of sympisiotomy, describing these as “quite a collection of issues” for which the State had failed to assign any accountability.

Sir Nigel’s comments marked the end of Ireland’s Fourth Periodic Examination by the UN Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which saw Minister Fitzgerald face tough questions from the 17-member panel of human rights experts.

The profound effect of symphysiotomies on survivors

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) led a 30-member civil society delegation to Geneva to brief the Committee members in advance of the hearing on a broad range of issues. This group included members of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy campaign group (SOS), who provided direct evidence to Committee members on the profound effect which this procedure – often performed without consent – has had on their lives and continues to do so.

As a newly-appointed Justice Minister, who came to the job with a reform agenda, we waited to hear from her about forthcoming inititiatives which would move Ireland towards with compliance with the Treaty. We heard some good news: on legislation to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 (which permits discrimination on the grounds of religious ethos); recommitment to the “reform of police accountability and oversight mechanisms”; and, a departmental task force to look at the amendment of Article 41.2 of the Constitution on the role of women.

However, although the Minister emphasised that “support for the role of the Treaty Monitoring Bodies [such as the UN Human Rights Committee] is a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy”, we heard no less than six references to legislation that was “being progressed” or which would be “published shortly”, as well as the development of implementation plans, and strategy reviews or the establishment of task forces and implementation groups. There was limited reform to report, it seemed.

And it didn’t get much better. The 70 people who had gathered with expectation in the ICCL’s Human Rights Green Room in Dublin were presented with a reiteration of previous Government submissions replete with reasons why we – Ireland – were not in a position to comply with international human rights standards.

Irish women treated as ‘vessels’

And so, as the Committee members continued in vain to seek answers from the Government delegation about why Ireland, which views itself as a protector and promoter of human rights abroad, could not develop a strategy to bring our abortion laws into line with the Covenant or why we continue to deny survivors of symphysiotomy an independent, transparent and effective truth finding process, the clock was running down rapidly and the spotlight was about to move off Ireland.

But not without some choice words from the previously restrained Chair, himself an international human rights expert and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

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”. In particular, he mentioned pregnancy as a result of rape “where the person doesn’t even bear any responsibility and is by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more”.

On a broader scale, the Chair captured the essence of the fundamental deficit in Irish political and social life: the lack of accountability that blights the Irish political landscape. He concluded his comments by specifically referencing the survivors of symphysiotomy and the inadequate redress which had been offered to them.

Will we have a repeat performance by Ireland? 

Following on from the Geneva examination, the Committee will issue a series of recommendations to Ireland next week. Minister Fitzgerald and her cabinet colleagues have two options: continue with business as usual and prepare a repeat performance for Ireland’s next examination before the Committee in four years. Or, inject real political leadership into the implementation of the Committee’s recommendations.

With a revitalised Cabinet in place and Ireland’s current membership of the prestigious UN Human Rights Council, we have reason to hope that the latter road may be travelled by Ireland this time. Committing to a full Oireachtas debate on the forthcoming recommendations from the Human Rights Committee would be a clear sign that the Government is genuinely committed to mending its ways.

Deirdre Duffy is Senior Research and Policy Programme Manager at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

Read: ‘I will stay married’: Transsexual woman defiant after court ruling

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

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