UN call for Irish referendum on abortion

Ireland must hold a referendum on abortion to ensure women and girls in the country have full access to their economic, social and cultural rights, a UN committee has told a delegation representing the Irish government in Geneva.

The Geneva-based UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) has been examining Ireland on its compliance with rights covering issues such as access to health, housing and education. The last time Ireland was examined on its compliance with the UN Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights was 2002.

Ireland is the only country in the world with a constitutional ban on abortion. The procedure is only available to women who are in immediate danger of death, and women who have an illegal abortion face 14 years in prison. The strict rules result in thousands of women travelling abroad seeking an abortion, the costs of which can run into the thousands of euros.

The special rapporteur for Ireland, Justice Ariranga Pillay from Mauritius, asked the Irish delegation: "According to your answers about why the abortion law cannot comply with the international covenant standards, you said this is because of the constitutional protection for the unborn foetus. If this is the case why have you not had a referendum? Why have you not answered this?"

Another committee member said there was a contradiction between the Irish constitutional right afforded to the unborn and the rights guaranteed by the UN "to a woman's right to life and to health".

The Abortion Rights Campaign's (ARC) co-convenor Sinéad Corcoran, one of many rights groups present at the questioning, condemned Ireland's abortion laws. She told Newsweek: "The committee directly asked the state three times why it will not call a referendum, which is one of our organisation's main aims. The state's response on the day was very disappointing and failed to answer the question."

"We think there is a groundswell of support for a referendum among the Irish public," Corcoran continues. "Our membership is growing faster than ever, and now is a critical time, now is a time for change."

However, the Irish Pro-Life Campaign criticised the UN committee for questioning Ireland's constitutional protection for the unborn child. Cora Sherlock, deputy chairperson of the campaign, says argues that the UN's intervention is unnecessary. "A very selective debate is going on over the whole abortion issue at the moment. The UN should not criticise Ireland for trying to protect women and the lives of unborn children, we think that's inappropriate.

"Ireland is a sovereign state, and the Irish people will have the final say on the question of abortion, the UN does not have jurisdiction over the issue," Sherlock continues. "The Irish people have made it clear they are happy that mother and baby are protected under Ireland's laws".

The questions to the representatives of the Irish government come just as Amnesty International released a report showing the obstacles Irish women face when choosing to terminate their pregnancies. Amnesty is calling for a change in Ireland's laws to allow women access to an abortion in the case of rape, severe or fatal foetal impairment, or a risk to the woman's health.

At least 4,000 women leave Ireland each year in order to have an abortion, many of whom travel to the UK for the procedure. But it can be a costly trip. On average, travelling for an abortion costs between €1,000 and €1,500, taking into account flights or ferry costs, the procedure itself and sometimes a night in a hotel, when no same-day return flights are available.

A mother who desperately tried to get an appointment for her teenage daughter, told Amnesty that she could barely afford the sky high cost of flights to Liverpool owing to a football game taking place on the same day. She also spoke about the stigma of abortion in Ireland. "This has really made me feel like an outcast, that we've done something wrong [even though] we did the best we could in horrible circumstances for our daughter. The Church would hate me and the state shuns me."

Another woman, Frances, who travelled to London for an abortion, told Amnesty that as the family's sole breadwinner, she "would have been plunged into absolute poverty, misery and isolation living in the middle of nowhere with very little [if she had another child]... I had so little money but I had some savings – I did have enough to cover [the abortion], just about. I spent every penny I had at the time on that."

One woman, who procured a later term abortion, reported having to pay €5,000 for outpatient expenses, flights and hotel fees.

A total of 3,735 Irish residents travelled to to England or Wales last year for abortions, according to the UK department of health. The figure represents an increase of 3,679 from 2013, which is the first year-on-year rise in the number of abortions among Irish residents since 2001.

According to a poll published in the Irish Times last year, 68% of Irish citizens would like to have a national vote on whether to permit abortion in cases of rape or where the foetus will not be born alive.