UN Committee Rules Ireland’s Abortion Laws Violate Human Rights
(Updated 03.18.21) In two landmark rulings, the United Nations Human Rights Committee determined that Ireland’s strict ban on abortion subjected women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. For the first time in response to an individual complaint, the Committee recognized that criminalizing and prohibiting abortion violates international human rights law. The Committee instructed Ireland to prevent future violations by legalizing abortion and ensuring access to abortion care in Ireland.
The Center for Reproductive Rights brought two cases to the Committee on behalf of Amanda Mellet and Siobhán Whelan, who were denied access to abortion care in Ireland after learning that their pregnancies involved a fatal fetal impairment. Due to the legal prohibition on abortion in Ireland, each woman had to travel to a foreign country to obtain legal abortion care.
At the time, Ireland had one of the world’s most restrictive and severe abortion laws. Irish law enshrined a constitutional ban on abortion and criminalized abortion in nearly every circumstance, except when a woman’s life was at risk. As a result, each year thousands of women in Ireland had to travel to foreign countries to obtain legal abortion care—and the severe criminal laws magnified the shame and stigma surrounding abortion in Ireland.
In its decisions, the UN Human Rights Committee recognized the psychological, physical, and financial harms caused by Ireland’s abortion laws. The Committee found that Ireland had violated Articles 7, 17, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and ordered the country to make full reparation to the women for their suffering, including by providing compensation and by covering the costs of rehabilitation. The Committee also instructed Ireland to take measures to prevent similar violations in the future by legalizing abortion and ensuring access to abortion care in Ireland.
The Irish Minister for Health issued formal apologies in 2016 and 2017 to Mellet and Whelan for the suffering they endured. In 2017, the landmark rulings were cited as one of the reasons law reform on abortion was imperative in a report of a joint parliamentary committee tasked with making recommendations on necessary reforms.
In 2018, the law-reform process culminated in the repeal of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion and the legalization of abortion in Ireland, following a constitutional referendum in which the Irish people voted by a resounding majority to remove the constitutional prohibition and enable Irish lawmakers to legislate on abortion and bring about long-awaited reforms.
These cases marked the first time that an international legal authority unequivocally condemned a state’s prohibition and criminalization of abortion in response to an individual complaint.
Applicant(s): Amanda Mellet, Siobhán Whelan
- Statement from Amanda Mellet
- U.N. Committee Finds Ireland’s Abortion Laws Are Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading
- Irish Woman Forced to Travel Abroad for Abortion Brings Case to United Nations
- U.N. Committee: Criminalization of Abortion in Ireland Violates Woman’s Human Rights
- Irish Government to Provide Monetary Reparations Following Landmark United Nations Abortion Case
- Irish Parliamentary Committee Recommends Abortion Law Reform
- Outcome of Irish Referendum on Abortion is a Momentous Result for Reproductive Rights