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Irish abortion laws criticised

By January 28, 2010News

IrishHealth.Com – 28 January 2010

Deborah Condon

The Irish Government has been severely criticised for its restrictive abortion laws.

According to a new report by the international organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Government ‘actively seeks to restrict access to abortion services and information both within Ireland and for its residents seeking care abroad’.

"Women in need of abortion services should, as a matter of international law and frankly, human decency, be able to count on support from their government as they face a difficult situation. But in Ireland they are actively stonewalled, stigmatised, and written out," said Marianne Mollmann, HRW’s women's rights advocacy director.

The 57-page report, A State of Isolation: Access to Abortion for Women in Ireland, details how women struggle to overcome the financial, logistical, physical and emotional burdens imposed by Irish abortion laws and policies, which force them to seek care abroad without support from the state.

The report notes that in Ireland, abortion is legally restricted in almost all circumstances, with potential penalties of penal servitude for life for both patients and service providers, except where the pregnant woman's life is in danger. However there is little legal and policy guidance on when, specifically, an abortion might be legally performed within Ireland.

As a result, some doctors are reluctant even to provide pre-natal screening for severe foetal abnormalities, and very few, if any, women have access to legal abortions at home.

The report points out that the Government has indicated that it has no current plans to clarify the possible reach of related criminal penalties and that it does not keep figures on legal and illegal abortions carried out in Ireland, or on the number of women travelling abroad for services.

"Irish law on abortion is in and of itself an affront to human rights. But it is made worse by the fact that even those who may qualify for a legal abortion in Ireland cannot get one due to deliberately murky policies that carry an implied threat of prosecution,” Ms Mollman said.

According to the report, women also face ‘active sabotaging’ of their health decisions by the state. It notes that throughout the last two decades, the Government has used injunctions to prevent individuals from travelling abroad for abortion. As recently as 2007, a 17-year-old girl in the custody of the HSE had to go to court to get permission to travel to the UK for an abortion.

Meanwhile, organisations that provide information on how to access abortion services abroad face restrictions on when and how this information can legally be conveyed under threat of penalties. The Government also does nothing to prevent ‘rogue’ agencies that represent themselves as providers of information about abortion from circulating ‘blatantly misleading and false’ information.

"Women should not have to make decisions about their health and lives based on lies. Yet the law leaves ‘rogue' agencies unregulated and threatens honest service providers with fines or worse if they help a distressed woman make a phone call to a clinic abroad,” Ms Mollman added.

The report has been welcomed by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA). It said it is ‘not surprised’ that the Government has been criticised by HRW.

“Since 1980, at least 138,000 women have been forced to travel abroad to access safe and legal abortion services. We believe that the criminalisation of abortion has little impact on abortion rates, it merely adds to the burden and stress experienced by women having crisis pregnancies,” the organisation said.

The report was also welcomed by the Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices clinic, which provides women with information on abortion, contraception and sexual health.

“The Government’s approach to abortion is restrictive and archaic and a violation of women’s basic right to health and information. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy are in desperate need of non-judgemental, accurate information and support to allow them to make the right choice for their individual circumstances,” said Gabrielle Malone, Programme Director with the clinic.