The United Nations Human Rights Committee announced a ruling Thursday on a case brought by Amanda Mellet, an Irish woman who after being told that her fetus would not survive her pregnancy, traveled to the United Kingdom for an abortion, because of Ireland's laws prohibiting abortions in all cases except in which the mother's life is in danger.
In a 29-page report, the committee said Mellet's human rights had been violated. The language the report used to castigate the Irish government was strong. It said Ireland's ban on abortion subjected a woman carrying a fetus with a fatal abnormality to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Ireland's current laws forced Mellet to choose "between continuing her non-viable pregnancy or travelling to another country while carrying a dying foetus, at personal expense and separated from the support of her family, and to return while not fully recovered," the report said. (Foetus is a British spelling of fetus.)
The U.N. committee holds no legal authority, but it has requested a formal response. However, the fact that the report found Ireland's laws to be in contravention of the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights means that Mellet's case may be seen as an international precedent. In other words, the United Nations is signaling that it sees as a human right the decision to have an abortion if the fetus has a terminal condition.
Ireland “should amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy, including if necessary its constitution, to ensure compliance with the covenant, including effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland,” the ruling stated.
Mellet found out about her baby's condition in November 2011 when she was 21 weeks pregnant. The report indicated that many doctors in Ireland struggle to distinguish between support for a women who has decided to have an abortion and actually promoting abortion, which is against the law. Mellet traveled to the United Kingdom for the abortion but had to return as soon as she could because she could not stay away from work for too long. The U.N. report says the hospital she used did not give her any timely options regarding the fetus's remains, so she left them behind. But then three weeks later, the ashes were delivered to her in the mail. Mellet then filed a complaint with the United Nations, citing her experiences.
Opinion polls taken since 2013, when Ireland slightly eased the ban to allow for cases in which the mother's life was in danger, indicate that a majority of the country's population supports extending the allowance to cases of rape, incest, inevitable miscarriage and fatal fetal abnormality.
Ireland's abortion laws are the strictest in the 28-member European Union. Each year, thousands of Irish women travel to the United Kingdom to have an abortion.
"I hope the day will soon come when women in Ireland will be able to access the health services they need in our own country, where we can be with our loved ones, with our own medical team, and where we have our own familiar bed to go home and cry in," Mellet said in a statement to the media. "Subjecting women to so much additional pain and trauma simply must not continue."
Mellet could not even access state-funded bereavement counseling services upon her return, because Irish maternity hospitals can provide that only to women who agreed to carry their pregnancies to birth or who have a miscarriage.
Mellet's detractors painted the U.N. ruling as part of a lopsided campaign mounted by the international body against Ireland's sovereignty and predominantly Roman Catholic people.
"The U.N.'s Human Rights Committee has become a de facto lobby group for abortion. Every few months they castigate Ireland's abortion laws but are totally silent when it comes to investigating abuses in the abortion industry," said Cora Sherlock, who leads Ireland's Pro Life Campaign. She added that it was wrong in her opinion to treat fetuses with fatal abnormalities as "unworthy of any legal protections."
Tracy Harkin of the organization Every Life Counts said, "The language used by the U.N. reflects the appalling attitude of discrimination which is pushing families towards abortion, and denies them time with their sick babies, time that allows them to make memories and provides a pathway to healing."
Simon Harris, Ireland's health minister, said he had read the committee’s report and found "the experience this woman had deeply upsetting. I have met with families who have been through the trauma of knowing their baby will not survive and I have been very moved by hearing of their experiences. I want to see this issue addressed."