Immigrant saying she was suicidal was refused termination at eight weeks before court made her have the baby at 25 weeks
A young woman has been legally forced to give birth by caesarean section after being denied an abortion in Ireland, in a case experts say exposes flaws in recent reform meant to allow limited terminations.
The woman, who is an immigrant and cannot be named for legal reasons, was refused an abortion even though at eight weeks she demanded a termination, claiming she was suicidal.
After she then threatened a hunger strike to protest the decision, local health authorities obtained a court order to deliver the baby prematurely – at around 25 weeks according to some reports – to ensure its safety. The infant has been placed in care.
The case is the first proper test of the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which allows for limited abortions in Irish hospitals. The law provides for cases where the woman's life would be in danger if she goes full term, or in cases where she is suicidal in such instances as rape and incest. Critics say that in this instance the law has proved of no practical value to the woman concerned.
The case also highlights medical guidelines given to Irish doctors, which pro-choice organisations said would seriously obstruct suicidal women seeking abortions. The guidelines mean that women seeking an abortion could need approval from up to seven experts.
Pro-choice campaigners want to know if the woman concerned was offered the option of an abortion in the UK.
Máiréad Enright, a lecturer on human rights law at the University of Kent and a member of the Irish-based Lawyers for Choice, said: "A woman might be able to obtain an abortion in the UK after 24 weeks, on limited grounds, including to save her life or to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
"In many cases, as we already know too well, the right to travel is meaningless to the wide variety of very vulnerable women unable to access it. However, it is likely that reports like this one, of this case, may discourage women from making applications under the act at all."
Enright said thousands of women in Ireland who are foreign nationals as well as those from the Irish Travelling community are now at risk of being refused abortions in the Republic's hospitals or the alternative of a termination in Britain.
She said: "It has been reported that this woman did not have a great command of English or was fully aware of her rights under Irish law. Was she offered any alternatives by the medical team examining her? Was she told she could travel to England although this was more complicated by the fact that she would have needed a special visa to leave the state for Britain?
"This judgment puts a whole lot of vulnerable women in Ireland, like the thousands of migrants and women from traditionally underprivileged communities like the Travellers, at even greater risk.
"Women in these communities are often denied access to their rights including the right to travel or are given very little information about their rights."
Lawyers For Choice has made a submission to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on what it sees as major flaws in the new abortion legislation.
The legal document notes that "in those limited circumstances in which abortion is permitted, it is state doctors and not women who are gatekeepers to abortion. In all other circumstances state law effectively reinforces an array of social and economic burdens to punish women who seek to terminate their pregnancies."
If the UN committee accepts the lawyers' arguments it will be the second time this year that it has sharply criticised the near blanket ban on abortion in the Irish state. The UN's Human Rights Commission described the process of putting a suicidal pregnant woman through a panel of up to seven doctors as "additional mental torture".
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