In an unprecedented ruling, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has judged that an Irish woman's human rights were violated after being denied an abortion.
The case involved 42-year-old Dublin woman Amanda Mellet, who became pregnant in 2011 with what would have been her first child. Doctors told Mellet at her 21st week scan that her fetus had a congenital heart defect and would either die in utero or shortly after birth. As Irish abortion law does not permit terminations unless the mother's life is in direct danger, Mellet was not eligible for a state-administered abortion.
Instead, doctors and midwives at the city's Rotunda hospital suggested that Mellet and her husband might wish to 'travel' for treatment (meaning fly to the UK, where abortion is legal.) After a doctor attempted to dissuade Mellet from aborting the pregnancy by saying, "the child might not suffer," Mellet continued with her plans to have an abortion. Court documents state that Mellet's intention in doing so was "to spare her child suffering," and that her doctor's comments made her feel "judged."
After flying to England, Mellet's pregnancy was induced and she delivered a stillborn fetus after a 36-hour labor. Unable to afford a longer stay (the cost of the trip came to $3,400), she flew back to Dublin only 12 hours after the delivery. Court documents state that she was "bleeding, weak and lightheaded." Shockingly, Mellet unexpectedly received her stillborn fetus' ashes by courier three weeks later. In a piece of understated legalese, the filings explain Mellet was "deeply upset" by having a stranger hand over the remains of a much-wanted pregnancy in a Ziploc bag.
Mellet brought a claim to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. She alleged that Ireland's criminalization of the abortion services she needed were in violation of her human rights—specifically, that having to choose between continuing with a non-viable pregnancy or traveling abroad for treatment was in violation of Mellet's right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The UN agreed with Mellet, ruling the Irish authorities "subjected the author [Mellet] to conditions of intense physical and mental suffering… Many of the described negative experiences she went through could have been avoided if the author had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of her own country and under the care of the health professionals whom she knew and trusted."
Additionally, the UN ruled that Mellet was discriminated against as she was denied the bereavement counselling given to other Irish women who've had stillbirths.
While the UN can't make Ireland change its abortion laws—amongst the most restrictive in the world—Mellet will be liable for compensation.The ruling also focuses international attention on the plight of all women denied abortion in the largely Catholic country, but specifically on those carrying fetuses not expected to survive pregnancy. Recent months have seen a number of women bringing legal cases against the Irish state, particularly in cases involving fatal fetal abnormalities.
Mara Clarke from the Abortion Support Network views today's ruling as a massive step forward. "It's a brilliant victory for Amanda, and hopefully this will put pressure on Ireland to allow terminations for medical reasons". She cautions, however, that all women need to have access to safe and legal abortion, not just those carrying non-viable fetuses. "We don't believe there's a hierarchy of need for women who wish to terminate pregnancies."
What Mellet endured in order to terminate a non-viable pregnancy is sadly typical of the experience of many in Ireland today. "Women who have very much wanted pregnancies who receive a diagnosis of fetal abnormality are treated appallingly by the state." Disturbingly, she tells me that she's heard of Irish women being misled by medical professionals until they're over the legal termination limit in the UK.
Although today's ruling is a moral boost, it doesn't change the fact that Irish women seeking abortions—for medical reasons or otherwise— are being forced to travel abroad, at personal and emotional expense.
"The Irish authorities believe they know better than you whether you should continue with your pregnancy," says Clarke. "If you choose you don't want to give birth to a baby and watch it die, Ireland's going to punish you. They're going to treat you like a shameful criminal."