5 December 2012

Dear Madam Secretary, 

            On the occasion of your visit to Ireland this week, as part of which you will deliver an address at Dublin City University on the theme of human rights, we would like to take this opportunity to express our deep concern at what Human Rights Watch last month described as an “urgent gap in women’s human rights” in Ireland. The failure of seven successive Irish governments to legislate for the constitutional right of women in Ireland to have access to safe and legal abortion when their lives are at risk has resulted in ongoing and unacceptable danger for pregnant women in the country. This danger was tragically highlighted last month by the death in an Irish hospital of a young Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar. As Irish citizens, as members of the Irish diaspora in the United States, and as citizens of the US and elsewhere who wish to express solidarity with women in Ireland, we respectfully ask that, as you meet with the Irish government, and as you speak at DCU, you bear in mind this extremely serious gap in Irish law which constitutes a clear violation of basic human rights. 

            The situation to which we refer is a consequence of the unwillingness of Irish governments to introduce legislation giving force to the Irish Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in the X case, which stated that a woman is entitled to an abortion when a continued pregnancy would pose a real and substantial threat to her life. A 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the A, B and C case further found Ireland to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to implement procedures which would allow a woman to establish her right to an abortion within Ireland. The Court also noted that the criminal provisions enshrined in the current law, which dates from 1861, constituted a “chilling factor” for women and medical professionals. 

            Savita Halappanavar died in University Hospital Galway on October 28th, having been admitted whilst suffering a miscarriage one week previously. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, has stated that her request for a termination was refused by hospital staff, with one doctor invoking the reasoning that Ireland was “a Catholic country”. After an agonizing three-day miscarriage, Savita was found to have contracted septicemia and E-Coli, and died three days later. 

            Savita’s death has provoked a mass outpouring of grief and anger from those who believe that a termination may have saved her life and, more crucially, that the lives of pregnant women in Ireland must be protected by clear legislation for the twenty-year-old X case ruling. Organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as the UN’s Committee Against Torture have stated that there is an urgent need for domestic legislation in line with international human rights principles, including the very clear ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. The government recently informed the Council of Europe that it plans to take a decision on how to implement the judgment of the Court by December 20th, after the Irish Parliament has debated a report by an Expert Group established to examine this issue. We hope that both the debate and the government’s decision will be based on Ireland’s human rights obligations including its obligations on women’s rights, and that it will be followed by swift implementation. 

            Otherwise, Ireland will continue to be in clear violation of its international obligations on human rights, despite having committed, during its recent successful campaign for membership of the UN Human Rights Council, to the full promotion of such rights in its domestic policy. Deeming this to be a matter of urgent concern both on an Irish and international scale, we would ask, Madam Secretary, that you might consider addressing this very real and present danger to the lives and health of pregnant women during your visit to Ireland this week. The Irish government must take the right decision to protect the rights of women in Ireland, and it should do so without further delay. 

            Yours sincerely, 

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