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12th Dec 2017

‘Our bodies, our health, our sexuality…’ Ireland continues to fail all women

As the Joint Oireachtas Committee meets to make its final recommendation.

Taryn de Vere

Ireland is failing to adequately provide for women’s sexual and reproductive rights, according to a report by the Council Of Europe Commissioner For Human Rights.

The Commissioner reviewed the sexual health provisions in European countries and found that Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws have, “potentially severe consequences” for the health of women in this country.

The report states that without sexual and reproductive rights “some of the most significant and intimate aspects of our lives as human beings are at risk. Our ability to make autonomous and informed decisions about our bodies, our health, our sexuality, and whether or not to reproduce, is undermined”.

Ireland was included in a list of eight European member states that retain “highly restrictive” laws that prohibit abortion “except in strictly defined, exceptional circumstances.” The other countries mentioned were Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Northern Ireland, Poland, and San Marino.

“Most women in these countries who decide to end a pregnancy travel to another European country to obtain safe abortion services or undergo illegal clandestine abortion at home.”

“Often in these countries even women who qualify under narrow exceptions for legal abortion care are confronted with serious obstacles when seeking access to legal abortion care.”

The Commissioner’s report says that the restrictive laws have “severe and harmful implications for women’s health and well-being.”

Both Ireland and Northern Ireland were also specifically mentioned in relation to the criminal sanctions women can face for access reproductive healthcare.

“In many cases the sanctions outlined are severe: in Ireland, for example, the prescribed penalty for women can amount to 14 years in prison, while in Northern Ireland it can extend to life imprisonment.”

The Commissioner was furthermore critical of countries that force women to look to other countries for safe abortion care and highlighted the consequences for women unable to travel.

“Where a woman is unable to travel to another country to obtain safe abortion care, or is reluctant to undergo clandestine abortion, she may be left with no choice but to carry a pregnancy to term against her will.

“This continuum of consequences, and the feelings of isolation, fear, humiliation, and stigmatisation that these laws often produce can have a broad range of physical, psychological, financial and social impacts on women, with implications for their health and well-being.”

Several Irish cases are mentioned in the report including the Human Rights Committee judgement which found that Ireland had violated the right of Amanda Mellet and Siobhan Whelan to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, (under Article 7 of the ICCPR).

The Human Rights Commission found that as a result of Ireland’s prohibition and criminalisation of abortion both women had been subjected to “high levels of mental anguish” and “conditions of intense mental and physical suffering.”

The report says Ms Mellet and Ms Whelan were “forced” by the State to bear, “significant financial, psychological and physical burdens that intensified their suffering”.

The European report is also critical of Ireland’s treatment of the estimated 1,500 Irish women who were subjected to symphysiotomy operations without their consent.

“Irish authorities have yet to investigate the practice in an impartial, independent and thorough way, including by hearing the testimony of the alleged victims, and ensuring that victims receive prompt and adequate redress.”

Speaking more generally about the issues facing European women the report states that some of the challenges are, “ongoing failures to ensure effective remedies and reparation also affect other  for survivors of gender-based violence, victims of sexual abuse in residential care or educational institutions, and women who have faced forced or coercive practices in childbirth.”

This report, critical of Ireland’s abortion laws came just days before the Joint Oireachtas Committee is due to meet to make their final recommendations regarding the 8th amendment.

The Committee will be making a decision on Wednesday, December 13.