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Ireland compensates woman forced to travel for abortion care

In a historic decision, Ireland on Wednesday agreed to compensate a woman, Amanda Mellet, for requiring her to travel to Britain to access abortion care, The Guardian reports (McDonald, The Guardian, 11/30).

Background

In 2013, Ireland's Parliament legalized abortion in cases only when the procedure is needed to save a woman's life, including when there is a medical consensus that a woman would commit suicide if the pregnancy continued. However, the law does not allow abortions in other instances, including rape, incest, fetal anomaly or when the fetus has no chance of survival.

Providers who perform abortions outside the law's limitations are subject to a 14-year prison sentence.

The ban each year drives thousands of pregnant women in Ireland to travel to other countries, usually England, for abortion care. Since 2013, Ireland residents in multiple opinion polls have expressed majority support for legalizing abortion care in instances of rape, incest and fetal anomalies.

Details on Mellet's case

In 2011, Mellet, a resident in Dublin, Ireland, was denied abortion care despite a fatal fetal diagnosis. Three weeks later, at 24 weeks' gestation, Mellet traveled to England to have an induced delivery, resulting in a stillborn birth.

Mellet was barred from taking the fetal remains with her when she returned to Ireland by plane, and she was "deeply upset" three weeks after the procedure, when she received the cremated remains by courier. Mellet did not qualify for state-funded grief counseling because she induced delivery instead of miscarrying or carrying the pregnancy to term (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/10).

In 2013, Mellet formally asked the United Nations (UN) to condemn Ireland's prohibition on abortion care in instances of fatal fetal anomalies as "cruel and inhumane." Two other women later submitted similar requests. According to The Guardian, all three women, had they remained in the Irish Republic, would have been forced to carry pregnancies to term that would have resulted in stillbirth deliveries (The Guardian, 11/30).

Ban violates U.N. regulations

Earlier this year, the United Nation's (U.N.) Human Rights Committee cited Mellet's case in a report concluding that Ireland's abortion ban violates the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It said the law unjustifiably prioritizes rights of unviable fetuses before those of women and is discriminatory because it puts "the burden of criminal liability primarily on the pregnant woman."

According to the committee, Ireland's restrictions on offering medical recommendations and care to women who travel to other countries for abortion care caused Mellet to experience "intense suffering." The committee said Mellet's experiences "amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

The committee does not have the authority to compel Ireland to change its laws, but it urged Ireland to ease its abortion ban in compliance with U.N. treaty requirements. According to the committee, Ireland's law should be amended to allow abortion in cases of fatal fetal anomalies (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/10).

Latest developments

On Wednesday, Ireland's government said it would compensate Mellet for the trauma associated with having to travel to Britain for abortion care.

Ailbhe Smyth, a long-time reproductive-rights advocate who helped launch the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, praised the government's decision. "To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time ever that the Irish government has compensated a woman for having to leave the country for an abortion," she said, adding, "This is long overdue acknowledgement of the profound denial of women's right to autonomy in this country."

Smyth continued, "The government must immediately ensure no other woman suffers similar human rights violations. The eighth amendment is a profound source of discrimination and national shame for Ireland." Calling on Ireland to "undertake the necessary constitutional and legislative reforms to end, once and for all, Ireland's violation of international human rights law and obligations under human rights conventions and treaties," she said, "We cannot, as a country, continue to oversee the violation of women's human rights. We're saying that women deserve better and Ireland can do much better."

Separately, Ivana Bacik, an Irish lawmaker and lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, said the government's decision to accept the UN recommendation by compensating Mellet was "welcome" and marked progress toward reforming Ireland's abortion ban.

However, Bacik said the government needed now to give "official recognition that thousands of other women are being denied their basic human rights through being denied access to legal abortion in Ireland, due to the eighth amendment to the constitution." She added, "The UNHRC ruling in favo[r] of Ms Mellet made clear the need for us to hold a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment" (The Guardian, 11/30).