For the first time, Ireland is compensating one of its residents for the trauma she endured by having to travel to Great Britain to obtain an abortion.
The recipient of the damages is Amanda Mellet, one of three women who have recently challenged Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws in front of the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. All three women would have been forced under Irish law to carry to term fetuses that would have been born dead. Instead, they sought abortions across national borders. In November 2011, when Mellet was in the 21st week of her pregnancy, she found out that her fetus had congenital heart defects. She traveled to Liverpool with her husband to terminate the pregnancy, and had to travel home only 12 hours after the procedure was over because they couldn’t afford to stay longer.
In June 2016, based on Mellet’s testimony, the U.N. panel found that Ireland’s regulations that ban abortion even in cases of fatal fetal abnormality violate international law. These abortion restrictions subject women to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” that “encroach[es] on [their] dignity and physical and mental integrity,” the committee wrote, ordering the Irish government to amend its abortion laws. “Many of the negative experiences described that she went through could have been avoided if [Mellet] had not been prohibited from terminating her pregnancy in the familiar environment of her own country and under the care of health professionals whom she knew and trusted,” the committee concluded. By agreeing to compensate Mellet this week, the Irish government accepted the U.N. panel’s ruling.
Ireland’s repressive abortion regime has forced preventable physical trauma and deaths among pregnant women in recent years. Until 2013, Irish women were unable to legally terminate their pregnancies even if their lives were at risk. That restriction was lifted after the much-publicized tragedy of Savita Halappanavar, who perished from a pregnancy-induced blood infection as her doctors refused to provide abortion care. In 2012, women’s-rights attorney Julie F. Kay wrote in Slate that the traveling out of the country for an abortion as Mellet did is common practice in Ireland, and it helps the country keep its reputation as a stalwart beacon of anti-choice principles:
According to her husband, as Halappanavar’s health deteriorated, she had begged doctors for medically necessary treatment. Even after her doctors acknowledged that there was no chance her fetus would survive, they refused to terminate the pregnancy as long as they could detect even the faintest fetal heartbeat. Halappanavar slipped in to a coma from which she never recovered. … Why was Halappanavar refused the lifesaving abortion she needed? Her husband has been widely quoted as saying his wife’s doctors told him it was because Ireland is “a Catholic country.” But this fails to tell the whole story.
True, Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country, but it is also “the jewel in the crown” of the anti-abortion movement, a success story. Yet the actual rate of abortion among Irish women is similar to, and suspected to be higher than, that of countries where abortion is legal. It’s just that Irish women don’t have abortions in Ireland—they travel abroad for legal abortion services, a so-called “Irish solution to the Irish problem.”
Of course, leaving the country for an abortion is an option only for women with the resources to pay for travel, secure child care, take time off work, and, in many cases, pay out of pocket for the procedure in an unfamiliar place. Ireland’s reliance on other countries to provide necessary medical care for its residents has led to scenarios straight out of a horror film, like that of one woman living in Ireland who was denied an abortion at eight weeks pregnant in 2014, even though she said she was raped and was having suicidal thoughts. She couldn’t travel outside the country because of her immigration status, so she threatened a hunger strike to prove the threat to her life. Instead of allowing the woman to terminate her pregnancy, a court ordered her to undergo a Cesarean section at 25 weeks pregnant against her will to “save” the extremely premature fetus from any harm she might bring to it.
That the Irish government has agreed to compensate Mellet for the distress its policies inflicted upon her is a good sign for activists working to reform the country’s abortion laws. If Irish taxpayers are forced to pay damages to every woman who endures unnecessary trauma to get an abortion in Great Britain or elsewhere, public opinion may turn in favor of looser laws. The decision to pay Mellet signals that even the center-right ruling party is unwilling to flout the U.N. to take a pseudo-principled stand for the inhumane treatment of women.