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Abortion & Human Rights

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Access to safe and legal abortion is a human rights issue. By criminalising abortion in almost all circumstances, Ireland’s abortion laws deny women and girls their most fundamental rights to health, to live in dignity, to self-determination, and to access these rights without discrimination.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is clear that legal restrictions on abortion are likely to have serious implications for women’s health. The WHO Safe Abortion Guidelines 2012 emphasise that restricting legal access to abortion does not decrease the need for abortion, but is likely to increase the number of women seeking illegal and unsafe abortions.

The overwhelming European consensus allows abortion on a range of grounds, including risk to a woman’s life, risk to a woman’s health and well-being, in cases of rape and incest, and in cases of foetal anomaly.

This approach is consistent with the key human rights standard of proportionality, which requires that laws and policies applied to regulate access to abortion cannot excessively interfere with women's human rights – including the right to life, health, privacy, freedom from cruel and in humane treatment and non-discrimination.

In Ireland, the application of criminal and constitutional laws on abortion disproportionately seek to protect pre-natal life in virtually all circumstances without consideration for women's human rights.

The Irish State has been criticised by several international human rights bodies for its failure to reform Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws, in violation of its obligations under human rights treaties. Many of these treaties articulate the right to health:

  • Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health".
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) explicitly mentions the reproductive rights of women.
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) includes health related rights.

Human rights bodies, experts and other mechanisms that have criticised the impact of Ireland's abortion laws on women's and girls' human rights include:

  • UN member states as part of Universal Periodic Review
  • UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
  • UN Commitee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • UN Human Rights Committee
  • UN Committee Against Torture
  • UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
  • UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
  • UN Special Rapporteur on Health
  • Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner

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