Pro-life group criticises UN recommendations

Savita Halappanavar
Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland after being refused an abortion

By Shelley Marsden

Human rights committee criticised for recommendations to change Ireland’s abortion laws

Assertions by members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee that Irish abortion law violates international human rights agreements exceeds its authority, one observer has said.

“No U.N. (agreement) or any other kind of treaty or understanding supports the notion that there is a human right to abortion,” Austin Ruse, president of the New York-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told CNA.

“Only one treaty even mentions ‘reproductive health’ but even that treaty does not call for a right to abortion,” he added. “This idea is made up out of whole cloth by the sexual left. And it is an idea that is even losing ground at the UN and around the world.”

The UN Human Rights Committee said earlier this month that Ireland needs to decriminalise abortion – as well as open an investigation into the symphysiotomy controversy and promptly investigate all mother-and-baby-home abuse allegations.

The international body has released a no-holds-barred eight-page document of observations on the country’s abortion laws, as well as its handling of the symphysiotomy controversy and its sluggish progress investigating abuse of women and children in state-run  homes.

Ireland’s Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was in Geneva to defend Ireland’s human rights record just over a week ago, but the Committee’s new report reiterates earlier criticisms of the “highly restrictive” circumstances in which a woman can lawfully have an abortion carried out in Ireland.


In the spotlight is the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, the legislation brought in last year following the controversy surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar on October 28, 2013 at University Hospital Galway in Ireland, which led to worldwide protests.

Savita was unwell and suffering a miscarriage at 17 weeks, most likely due to a bacterial infection. Her requests for an abortion were refused, and she was told such an action would be illegal, “that this is a Catholic country.” After collapsing with septic shock, the fetus was removed on October 24, but despite being treated with antibiotics, Savita’s condition deteriorated and she died of organ failure four days later.

The UN panel said many aspects of the subsequent Bill gave it cause for concern, saying that the State should revise its abortion legislation to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality.

It  also said new laws should clarify exactly what constitutes a “real and substantive risk” to the life of the pregnant woman, and consider making more information on crisis pregnancy options available through various channels, ensuring that healthcare providers who give information on safe abortion services abroad are not subject to criminal sanctions.

The Irish government has previously said a referendum would be necessary to make any new amendments to the country’s abortion laws, something Tánaiste Joan Burton ruled out as a possibility before the next general election.


Symphisiotomy survivors at a protest
Symphisiotomy survivors at a protest

On Ireland’s management of the symphysiotomy scandal in Ireland, the UN panel said a “prompt, independent and thorough investigation” was recommended, adding that it was worried that the State to date had failed to begin its own comprehensive probe.

It stated that Ireland should also identify, prosecute and punish – where it was still possible to do so – the perpetrators for performing a symphysiotomy without the consent of the patient.

According to the committee, victims should also be allowed to launch a legal challenge to the sums offered to them under the scheme. The amounts planned for survivors have been set at €50,000, €100,000 and €150,000.

Never performed in developed countries today, due to the pain and potential damage involved in the barbaric procedure, a symphysiotomy breaks the pelvis in the case of an obstructed labour (such as a breech baby).

It is estimated that in Ireland, roughly 1, 500 women unknowingly and without giving their consent underwent the brutal procedure during childbirth between the years 1944 and 1992. Some 250 Irish survivors are estimated to be alive today.

In 2002, survivor Matilda Behan and her daughter, Bernadette, set up an advocacy group for victims, Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SoS). Matilda herself was operated upon at NMH with a circular saw 17 days before her baby was born. She thought she was being brought to theatre for a Caesarean section, nobody telling her they were planning to carry out a ‘pubiotomy’.

In 2008, the Irish Human Rights Commission recommended that the Government should reconsider its decision not to set up an independent inquiry into symphysiotomy, which was refused by the Minister for Health. In 2010, calls for an independent inquiry into the procedure’s use in Ireland were refused by the Minister for Health, Mary Harney.

In March of this year, Survivors of Symphysiotomy made a complaint to the United Nations Committee Against Torture about the Irish State’s failure to properly, thoroughly or impartially investigate the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland.

Survivors of Symphysiotomy has welcomed the panel’s recommendations. “It fully vindicates our campaign for truth and justice and exposes the State’s failure to date to provide an effective remedy for this breach of human rights,” said chairperson Marie O’Connor.

“In its latest statement to the UN, the Government claimed that patient consent was given in all cases where the operation was planned. This is a travesty of the truth. No woman ever consented to getting her pelvis broken in childbirth as an alternative to having a Caesarean section.”

Frances Firzgerald, Ireland's Minister for Justice
Frances Firzgerald, Ireland’s Minister for Justice


There was also concern expressed by the UN panel about the lack of swift, independent and thorough 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 pointed out the Irish government’s failure to identify all perpetrators of abuse, the low number of prosecutions carried out and “the failure to provide full and effective remedies to victims”.

The panel recommended that investigations be promptly carried out into all abuse allegations in Magdalene Laundries, children’s institutions and mother and baby homes.

It added that perpetrators should be prosecuted with penalties “commensurate with the gravity of the offence” and all victims receive an effective remedy, including compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and measures of satisfaction.


Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said the UN recommendations on a referendum on abortion would be examined, but said Ireland had its own position on the issue.

“There is a whole series of recommendations from the UN committee,” she said. “We are involved in that as part of our international obligations, but . . . Ireland has its own legal and constitutional position. But we will be examining that report.”

Commenting on the Committee’s recommendations on symphysiotomy, the Minister said the Government had put €34 million “on the table to help and support the women who suffered this barbaric procedure”. Survivors groups had rejected that offer, arguing that it came without accountability.

Betty Purcell, spokeswoman for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said it was now time for the State to act: “The IHREC calls on the State to debate the conclusions in the Oireachtas and to set up a parliamentary oversight mechanism to that end.

“It also calls on the Government to establish a cross-departmental task force to address, in a timely way, how the State will implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee.”


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