• Irish abortion laws criticised
The Irish Government has been severely criticised for its restrictive abortion laws.
According to a new report by the international organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Government ‘actively seeks to restrict access to abortion services and information both within Ireland and for its residents seeking care abroad’.
"Women in need of abortion services should, as a matter of international law and frankly, human decency, be able to count on support from their government as they face a difficult situation. But in Ireland they are actively stonewalled, stigmatised, and written out," said Marianne Mollmann, HRW’s women's rights advocacy director.
The 57-page report, A State of Isolation: Access to Abortion for Women in Ireland, details how women struggle to overcome the financial, logistical, physical and emotional burdens imposed by Irish abortion laws and policies, which force them to seek care abroad without support from the state.
The report notes that in Ireland, abortion is legally restricted in almost all circumstances, with potential penalties of penal servitude for life for both patients and service providers, except where the pregnant woman's life is in danger. However there is little legal and policy guidance on when, specifically, an abortion might be legally performed within Ireland.
As a result, some doctors are reluctant even to provide pre-natal screening for severe foetal abnormalities, and very few, if any, women have access to legal abortions at home.
The report points out that the Government has indicated that it has no current plans to clarify the possible reach of related criminal penalties and that it does not keep figures on legal and illegal abortions carried out in Ireland, or on the number of women travelling abroad for services.
"Irish law on abortion is in and of itself an affront to human rights. But it is made worse by the fact that even those who may qualify for a legal abortion in Ireland cannot get one due to deliberately murky policies that carry an implied threat of prosecution,” Ms Mollman said.
According to the report, women also face ‘active sabotaging’ of their health decisions by the state. It notes that throughout the last two decades, the Government has used injunctions to prevent individuals from travelling abroad for abortion. As recently as 2007, a 17-year-old girl in the custody of the HSE had to go to court to get permission to travel to the UK for an abortion.
Meanwhile, organisations that provide information on how to access abortion services abroad face restrictions on when and how this information can legally be conveyed under threat of penalties. The Government also does nothing to prevent ‘rogue’ agencies that represent themselves as providers of information about abortion from circulating ‘blatantly misleading and false’ information.
"Women should not have to make decisions about their health and lives based on lies. Yet the law leaves ‘rogue' agencies unregulated and threatens honest service providers with fines or worse if they help a distressed woman make a phone call to a clinic abroad,” Ms Mollman added.
The report has been welcomed by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA). It said it is ‘not surprised’ that the Government has been criticised by HRW.
“Since 1980, at least 138,000 women have been forced to travel abroad to access safe and legal abortion services. We believe that the criminalisation of abortion has little impact on abortion rates, it merely adds to the burden and stress experienced by women having crisis pregnancies,” the organisation said.
The report was also welcomed by the Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices clinic, which provides women with information on abortion, contraception and sexual health.
“The Government’s approach to abortion is restrictive and archaic and a violation of women’s basic right to health and information. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy are in desperate need of non-judgemental, accurate information and support to allow them to make the right choice for their individual circumstances,” said Gabrielle Malone, Programme Director with the clinic.
• Human Rights Watch launch report on Abortion and Ireland
Human Rights Watch (HRW) have today released their report A State of Isolation: Access to Abortion for Women in Ireland on the human rights implications of Irish legislation and policies regarding residents access to abortion. The report highlights international law and treaties and how they detail that people should be free from Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and how Ireland’s treatment of pregnant women seeking abortions contravenes this and other rights.
It details the situation facing women seeking access to legal abortion with no clear policy in place enabling these to take place. HRW chronicle the reluctance of the Department of Health, the medical council and many members of the medical profession in becoming involved in forming policy in the area though attitudes towards the women involved are changing.
Women seeking information on abortion are still at risk of receiving information from agencies (state funded) who do not support a woman’s right to choose or receive impartial information or indeed rogue agencies who are allowed to exist unregulated targeting women. (See earlier post on the actions of the state in trying to make women feel guilty about attending rogue agencies)
Women travelling outside the state wishing to access a termination continue to face many barriers in organising travel.
The women interviewed by Human Rights Watch described a climate of fear and shame, at least in part attributable to the criminalization of abortion. They explained their concerns about disclosing that they had had an abortion and the burden of secrecy that they are forced to carry. They also described their confusion about whether they could legally leave Ireland to access an abortion in the UK or other parts of Europe, and their concerns about whether to access post-abortion care, legally available in Ireland.
They also described financial constraints. Every woman interviewed for this report told Human Rights Watch how difficult it was to raise the money needed to pay for travel and the costs of the abortion. Even those who were employed indicated that the costs related to traveling created a significant barrier and delayed their access.
Asylum seekers face financial and freedom of movment barriers in accessing abortions abroad.
Asylum seekers are in a particularly vulnerable position. Often isolated, without family and other social support, they fear the consequences of seeking permission to leave the country to have an abortion. They also face additional costs as they have no travel documents, and must therefore apply and pay for emergency temporary travel documents, which are issued by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. They will also have to apply and pay for visas to enter the UK, or Schengen visas to enter into a European Union (EU) country. Currently the cost of a UK visa is £65 (€72). Application fees for a Schengen visa to the Netherlands cost £60 (€67).
A service provider, who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, described the situation of a young female asylum seeker she had worked with:
She could not legally leave the country. Her difficulties were that she didn’t know where to go … money and her legal status. We made the call to Holland … she needed to get a re-entry visa to return and to apply for a Schengen visa…. She needed a temporary travel document from the Department of Justice—we had a contact there—not sure how someone without a contact would do this…. It took a whole month to organize this. She was just over 12 weeks pregnant when she went to Holland. There were fees attached to the issuing of all the documents and there was no funding available for this.
These issues and recommendations may not be news to many of us, though we often forget about them or have decided that nothing can be done. But it is the first time in some years that all the issues affecting the human rights of women in trying to access information and services inside and outside the state have been researched and documented in one place.
The Department of Justice by the way don’t think that there is a problem regarding the issue in Ireland and refused to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch and said they had no intentions of doing anything on the matter.
I expect many of the agencies cited to come out denying that there is anything amiss in the country while women silently organise to travel or indeed as one person mentions in the report go through ‘desperate pregnancies’.