July 7, 2016

By: Christine Ryan

Three weeks ago, in the case of Amanda Mellet v Ireland, the Human Rights Committee concluded that Ireland’s abortion ban subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and should be lifted in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities. Within hours, this headline had travelled the world and activists on the ground in Ireland began organizing furiously. Local actors are seeking to translate this international pressure into domestic reform and this phenomenon is part of what I am studying in Ireland this summer.

The abortion law reform movement is currently concentrated on repealing the Eighth Amendment – the provision in the Irish constitution that prohibits abortion by enshrining the “right to life of the unborn” as equal to the right to life of pregnant women. I attended the launch of a bill to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in Dublin. The Bill will be tabled in October by the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit party but the sponsors decided to announce it early to give organizations and individuals ‘100 days’ to lobby their local TDs  (members of parliament) to have this bill passed. When I spoke with Ruth Coppinger TD, (pictured below) she told me that:

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“We will be campaigning very, very hard indeed to make sure that the voice of women and young women in particular is heard in this country. It’s far too long since they have been pushed aside and silenced.”

At present, the Government have promised a ‘citizens’ assembly’ that will consider whether there should be a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment. Most of the pro-choice activists I spoke with believe that this is merely a “delay tactic”. Similarly, anti-choice groups are not in favor of the assembly and claim that the government is pandering to the media.

Across Ireland however, there is no escaping discussion of abortion. Interestingly, the rhetoric and strategies of both ‘sides’ are very much grounded in ‘human rights’. Most of my research thus far has been on the reform side. In recent years, pro-choice advocacy groups have taken cases to the European Court of Human Rights; engaged in shadow reporting and in-person advocacy before a host of UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs) including the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child; advocated governments as part of the Universal Periodic Review process and emphasized human rights language and values when lobbying lawmakers domestically and in carrying out media campaigns.

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These advocacy efforts, particularly at the UN, have met with considerable success. Numerous human rights bodies have found Ireland’s abortion laws to be in violation of international human rights law and have recommended both a referendum on abortion as well as revision of legislation to comply with international standards. The significance of such ‘soft law’ recommendations and observations is often disputed owing to weak enforcement mechanisms. However, based on my study of the advocacy strategies and impact of IHRL based advocacy in Ireland, it seems clear that IHRL is transforming the legal, political and social landscape on abortion in Ireland.

In the first instance, the conclusions from the TMBs have mobilized groups (particularly the pro-choice advocacy groups) dramatically and strengthened their calls for reform. The Mellet case, for example, placed abortion in the spotlight in the second month of a new government and the groups are building momentum and support on social media, within the media and through visible activism. Advocates have spoken about the legitimizing impact of the UN conclusions whereby a dialogic community has been creatd by human rights law– a space where abortion can be discussed in away from the polarized views. For decades ‘abortion’ was a word that couldn’t be uttered but now it is accepted as a human rights issue. It seems increasingly likely that the government will be forced by this domestic shift to hold a referendum on the issue.

Secondly, reputational concerns for Ireland are high. In response to Mellet, the Deputy Prime Minister was clear that “We have to take this very seriously. We signed up to this covenant.” The rhetoric of the government has also changed. Contrary to state submissions in the Mellet case that the law represents the will of the people, government ministers are openly accepting that change is necessary to represent the will of the people.

Next, I will interview groups and politicians who represent the ‘pro-life’ side. As mentioned, these groups also describe abortion as a ‘human rights’ issue and it will be interesting to see the contrasting use of IHRL by both sides.


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