Ending the Shame

No great leaps in medical technology will ever alter the reality that a certain percentage of pregnancies fail for natural, unavoidable reasons. What can, and what in fact must, change is the care women receive in some corners of the world when such events unfold. Indeed, there are countries where women who learn that their pregnancies are doomed are denied care altogether.

On November 13, the Center for Reproductive Rights took a bold new step in what will be a sustained effort to effect change in Ireland when it filed the first of three cases before the United Nations Human Rights Committee targeting the country’s restrictive abortion law. The country’s law has created a callous health care environment that offers women nothing but shame and cruelty at a time when they need the best medical care possible.

Amanda Mellet and James Burke were “over the moon” when they found out, in 2011, that they would become parents. Those feelings crumbled when they went for an ultrasound at 21 weeks. The fetus suffered from chromosomal abnormalities and had no chance of survival. Their initial joy turned into their greatest nightmare.

What happened next has happened to many other Irish women and their families. Amanda told doctors that she couldn’t bear carrying the hopeless pregnancy to term, and the doctors informed her she would have to “travel”—a euphemism for abortion services abroad. She got no referral and no information from her doctors, but was left on her own to figure out the best way to address her medical condition only days after receiving the most devastating news of her life. Amanda had effectively been kicked out of the Irish health care system.

She and her husband had to find a health care facility that would give her the care she needed. Then they had to string together money to travel to Liverpool, England, spending several days there away from their support system of family and friends.

“It is absolutely clear from the law that women like Amanda do not have a right to pregnancy termination in Ireland,” says Johanna Westeson, the Center’s Regional Director for Europe.  They effectively have to venture abroad to get the minimum of dignified treatment. In fact, everything related to abortion in Ireland is poisoned with stigma and shame. Any woman considering an abortion, regardless of her circumstances, is received with suspicion by the health care system—to the extent that the word “abortion” has become so charged that health professionals use euphemisms rather than spell it out.

The only way a woman can get an abortion in Ireland is if she’s in danger of dying—and even that exception isn’t always respected. Given the stigma surrounding abortion in Ireland, health professionals are often too scared or too ignorant to provide abortions even when women have a legal right to access them. But the even more serious problem is the law itself. It is so extremely narrow that it leads to drastic violations of women’s human rights. Women are left without information and without support. In Ireland, the Center’s aim is nothing less than abortion law reform.

Amanda’s is the first of three cases we expect to bring to the UN to challenge Ireland’s reproductive health laws. “We have a very good likelihood of success, even though there’s not really a precedent,” says Johanna. “The Human Rights Committee has said before that Ireland needs to bring its abortion law in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, in an individual case the committee has never previously ruled that abortion law reform is necessary. We hope that these cases will serve as a great precedent not only for Ireland, but also for other countries in the world with restrictive laws.”

Also working in our favor are Ireland’s aspirations. “Ireland is really keen to be seen as a country that supports human rights,” says Johanna. In its foreign relations, Ireland is known to push for women’s rights, including reproductive rights for women in the developing world. But within the country, standards appear to be very different.

The impact of Ireland’s law touches so many aspects of women and their family’s lives. Abandoned by their country during a time of emergency, they are made to feel ashamed for asserting the fundamental right to reproductive health care. They are forced to go to a foreign city at a great cost. In Amanda’s case—and likely most women’s—she had almost no time to recover from a difficult medical procedure before she needed to get on a flight home, exposing her to physical health risks in addition to the psychological trauma she was already suffering.

Most devastating, perhaps, are the mental health consequences. “I could not believe…that we would have to travel to England like criminals to end the pregnancy,” wrote Amanda in her affidavit. Amanda still suffers from the trauma the Irish abortion ban exposed her to. In the end, it was her life’s worst crisis, and she cannot bear the thought of other women and couples routinely being subjected to the same treatment. She is committed to continue to speak up about what she experienced until the law has changed.

The fact that Irish women are denied these kinds of services is reprehensible. The time for real change in this country is long overdue. If Ireland wants to be known for its human rights, its leaders are going to have to prove it.