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Ireland likely to face another referendum on abortion

19 June 2015


Clinical decisions: Dr Rhona Mahony 

Clinical decisions: Dr Rhona Mahony 

ANOTHER referendum to change the constitutional position on abortion in Ireland is likely, after a report by Amnesty International and a UN committee's call for a national vote on the issue.

Amnesty, in its report She is Not a Criminal: The impact of Ireland's abortion law, accuses the country of failing to comply with international human-rights obligations, and says that the rights of women and girls to health, equality, not being discriminated against, privacy, information, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment are being violated.

Although the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was enacted last year, the report calls for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of 1983, which guarantees to vindicate, as far as practicable, the equal right to life of the unborn and the expectant mother. The report states that the amendment affords "a privileged position to the foetus at the unacceptable expense of the rights and lives of pregnant women and girls", and calls for its repeal.

The report is part of Amnesty's international campaign "My Body, My Rights", and follows research and interviews in Ireland and the UK over the past year. It cites a case in which a mother died because of the uncertainty of the terms of the Act on health grounds, and medical intervention came too late to save her life.

The Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, Dr Rhona Mahony, said at the launch of the report that clinical decisions whether abortion is the only way to save a pregnant woman's life were difficult, and framed in a criminal context under which both mother and doctor could be imprisoned. The present legal situation meant that women would, in desperation, continue to seek abortions abroad, or unknown medications would be acquired through the internet.

In Geneva, where an Irish government delegation has been attending the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Irish Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean Sherlock, was told that a referendum on abortion must take place to ensure that Irish women and girls could fully realise their economic, social, and cultural rights. The committee chairman also questioned the relationship between Church and State, which he described as seeming "a little bit fuzzy".

Walid Sa'di, from Jordan, said: "By European standards, it is almost sacrosanct, this division between Church and State. Your country, Ireland, poses a unique situation. Is it a unicultural or multicultural society? It seems to me to be more a unicultural society. If so, what happens to minorities in your country?"

Justice Ariranga Pillay, acting as special rapporteur for Ireland, said that "according to your answers about why the abortion law cannot comply with the International Covenant standards, you said this is because of the constitutional protection for the unborn foetus. If this is the case, why have you not had a referendum? Why have you not answered this?"

Against the backdrop of a rise in the number of women from Ireland travelling to other countries to have abortions in the past year - a conservative estimate is that 3735 travelled to the UK - another referendum on this contentious issue for the Irish electorate seems inevitable, although the current coalition government, which has less than a year to run, has no appetite for such a move, and it will be up to an incoming administration to resolve.

In Northern Ireland, Belfast High Court was told on Monday that the province's abortion legislation contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is calling on the law rather than the Northern Executive to ensure that abortion is made available in cases of rape, incest, or foetal abnormality.

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