Ireland’s abortion ban subjects women to cruel, degrading and discriminatory treatment, and should be ended in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities, a committee of United Nations human rights experts said on Thursday.
The committee found that Ireland had violated a pregnant woman’s human rights by forcing her to choose between carrying her fetus to term — knowing it would not survive — or traveling abroad for an abortion.
The committee urged Ireland to change its laws — “including if necessary its Constitution” — to allow abortion and to let medical providers provide information on abortion services “without fearing being subjected to criminal sanctions.”
Although Ireland last year became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote, it remains a deeply conservative country, and the Roman Catholic Church’s stance against abortion has not changed.
The case centered on a Dublin woman, Amanda Mellet, who has subsequently come forward and started an advocacy group urging the legalization of abortion for medical reasons.
In November 2011, Ms. Mellet, who was then 21 weeks pregnant, learned that her fetus had congenital defects so severe that it would either die in the womb or shortly after birth.
Ireland’s ban on abortion meant that she had to choose “between continuing her nonviable pregnancy or traveling to another country while carrying a dying fetus, at personal expense and separated from the support of her family, and to return while not fully recovered.”
Ms. Mellet traveled to Britain for an abortion and returned 12 hours after the procedure, because she could not afford to stay any longer. More than 3,400 Irish women and girls traveled to England and Wales for abortion services in 2015, according to the Britain’s Department of Health.
She had to leave the remains of the fetus behind, and “the ashes were unexpectedly delivered to her three weeks later by courier,” according to the United Nations experts.
Back in Ireland, the woman was “denied the bereavement counseling and medical care available to women who miscarry,” the panel found.
“In addition to the shame and stigma associated with the criminalization of abortion of a fatally ill fetus,” the committee found, Ms. Mellet’s “suffering was aggravated by the obstacles she faced in getting information about the appropriate medical options.”
The panel also urged Ireland to provide Ms. Mellet with “adequate compensation and psychological treatment she may need.”
The United Nations committee monitors countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty dating to 1966, to which Ireland is a party, but it does not have the power to compel countries to change their laws.
The committee is empowered to hear complaints filed directly by citizens of countries that are parties to the covenant.
Irish law allows health care providers to give patients information about abortion, but they face criminal sanctions if they give advice that could be interpreted as advocating or promoting the termination of a pregnancy. The committee found that the ban had a chilling effect on medical providers.
The office of Prime Minister Enda Kenny did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. In a written statement supplied to the committee, the Irish government had said that its laws reflected “the nuanced and proportionate approach to the considered views of the Irish Electorate on the profound moral question of the extent to which the right to life of the fetus should be protected and balanced against the rights of the woman.”
The 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, adopted by voters in 1983, enshrines “the right to life of the unborn.” In 1992, the country’s Supreme Court interpreted the law to mean that abortion should be allowed in circumstances in which there was “a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother,” including the threat of suicide.
In 2012, an Indian-born dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died after doctors refused to perform an abortion while she was having a miscarriage, prompting international outrage.
The following year, Parliament legalized the termination of pregnancies in cases when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide over a pregnancy.
But the law does not allow abortions in cases of incest, rape, fetal abnormality or when there is no prospect of survival outside the womb, as appears to have been the situation in the case of Ms. Mellet.
On Thursday, Repeal Eight, a coalition of groups that are seeking a repeal of the Eighth Amendment, called the United Nations findings “groundbreaking.”