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Savita, abortion and the right to health in international law

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Commentary around the Savita Halappanavar inquest has, understandably, focused on the Irish constitutional law context but I haven’t seen much discussion about the breach of her rights under international law.

This is perhaps unsurprising, as abortion itself has a nebulous standing in international human rights law. As its opponents never tire of pointing out, it isn’t protected per se in most of the world’s major human rights treaties. The only real exception is in the 2003 Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights – that continent’s counterpart to the European Convention – which sets out in Article 14(2):

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to:

(c) protect the reproductive rights of women by authorising medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest, and where the continued pregnancy endangers the mental and physical health of the mother or the life of the mother or the foetus.

None of the human rights treaties to which Ireland is party even mention the word “abortion”, though that doesn’t mean they can’t protect the right in limited circumstances. The obvious example of this is the European Court of Human Rights decision in ABC v Ireland, which held the State in breach of an applicant’s right to her private life for failing to provide a clear mechanism by which she could establish and exercise her right to a legal abortion. This is similar to the way that other treaty monitoring bodies have approached the issue, such as the UN Human Rights Committee in KL v Peru and the CEDAW committee in LC v Peru. In both cases, the decision wasn’t that there was a right to abortion per se in the relevant treaty (respectively, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), but that the particular abortion sought would have been legal under state law and thus various treaty provisions were breached by denying the petitioner access to it.

But what I want to talk about here is a more general right – namely, the right to health, and how it was breached in Savita’s case. The right to health is protected in a number of treaties that Ireland is party to, most importantly under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Then there’s CEDAW, mentioned above, which has its own Article 12 protections for women’s health, while in the European Social Charter, “The right to protection of health” is set out in Article 11. It’s important to realise that these treaties are all fully binding on Ireland as a matter of international law. There’s often confusion on this point, because Ireland has a “dualist” system which means a treaty isn’t domestically enforceable unless it’s incorporated into national law by the Oireachtas (as with the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003). You can’t go down to the High Court to sue the State for breaching your ICESCR rights – in fact, at the moment you can’t go anywhere. But it’s still legally obliged to protect them, even though there’s not much you can do if it doesn’t.

In and of itself, the fact that Savita died wholly avoidably in a public hospital proves the State’s failure to protect her right to health. If her death really had been due only to the “system failures” we keep hearing about, then perhaps we could chalk it down to a one-off, individual failure. But the more we hear from the inquest, the more apparent the truth becomes: the breach is in the law itself, not merely the way it was implemented or (mis)understood by her medical team. In fact, even if she had survived – and I know of a few women in similar circumstances who, thankfully, did – her right to health would still have been violated. Ireland’s ban on abortions in all but life-threatening cases will inevitably violate the right to health in those cases that fall short of the “real and substantial risk” threshold set by the Supreme Court. Here’s why.

The most widely-accepted definition of the right to health – the Article 12 ICESCR definition – is the “right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. The General Comment on this right by the treaty’s monitoring body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, goes quite a bit further in defining that to include “the right to control one’s health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedom”. This is a fairly unambiguous, though legally non-binding, interpretation. But we don’t even have to go there, because on the plain terms of Article 12, you cannot enjoy the highest attainable standard of health if you’re denied an abortion that you need for the sake of your health. Simple as – and there’s no getting around it by hypothesising whether Physical or Mental Condition X would entitle someone to an abortion under this rule. Yes, there may be cases where it’s uncertain if abortion really is indicated for health reasons, but that’s completely beside the point: Irish law doesn’t allow for any of them if you aren’t considered likely to die otherwise. An absolute prohibition on “therapeutic” abortions for non-life threatening cases is not made compatible with the right to health just because it’s not always easy to determine who needs a therapeutic abortion.

“But rights aren’t absolute”, I hear you say. Well no, they aren’t, but when they’re guaranteed in a legally-binding treaty they can only be limited under the terms set out in that treaty. The ICESCR limitations clause, Article 4, states that the rights can be subjected

only to such limitations as are determined by law only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.

Now, admittedly, this is a bit woolly, and a casual reading might well lend itself to a utilitarian interpretation, or suggest that a society which considers abortion a generally bad thing could legitimately consider an abortion ban to promote society’s general welfare. It’s not an absurd argument, on its face.

But it’s also not supported by the aids we have to interpret the meaning of the text. The Convention’s travaux préparatoires – the official records of the negotiation process (not online, but detailed in this book) – don’t exactly explain what the drafters of Article 4 had in mind. They do, however, show the rejection of various proposals to include grounds of public order, public morality and the interests of the community – all things which might suggest a person’s rights could be trumped in the interests of some aspirational “greater good”. The CESCR, for its part, states that Article 4

is primarily intended to protect the rights of individuals rather than to permit the imposition of limitations by States

which would mean that the State has a heavy burden of proof in justifying any such limitations.

In Irish law, of course, this is met by Article 40.3.3’s protection of “the right to life of the unborn”. But that won’t cut it in international law, because there is no right to life of the unborn in international law.  (As with the “right to abortion”, there is one exception, but it’s in a treaty that Ireland isn’t party to – the American Convention on Human Rights). And again, in terms of the treaties we’ve ratified that protect the right to life – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Convention on Human Rights – there is either travaux or case law leaving the foetus out of this protection. (This nifty fact sheet from the Center for Reproductive Rights has lots more detail about this.) So the balancing exercise that would be required to make the denial of therapeutic abortion compatible with the ICESCR is, in international legal terms, simply a nonsense. There is no legal “individual” to balance the woman’s rights against.

There’s another way in which I think Savita’s right to health was infringed, and that’s in the discriminatory way her health needs were dealt with. Article 2 ICESCR requires that the Covenant’s rights be protected “without discrimination of any kind”. Patently, there was discrimination in her case: she was treated differently because she was pregnant. A non-pregnant person would not have had a medically-indicated course of action refused to them at a time of comparable need. There may also be an issue around the antibiotic she was given, which wasn’t strong enough but was “recommended for use in maternal cases”. I’ve found the newspaper reports on this a bit unclear, and I’m not sure whether she was purposely given a weaker antibiotic because she was pregnant, or whether the staff simply didn’t realise, when they gave her the one they always give the pregnant women, that her infection needed a stronger dose. If it’s the former, then she clearly received discriminatory treatment – especially given that it was already known her foetus wouldn’t survive and anyway, she’d already asked for an abortion. The use of less effective medication in the interests of foetal health may certainly be justified, with the woman’s consent, in a wanted and viable pregnancy. But this wasn’t one of those cases.

I said earlier that there’s no place we can go to complain about a breach of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Well, that could change in the near future. The Covenant’s Optional Protocol, which allows individuals to bring complaints to the treaty’s monitoring body, will come into force on the 5th of May. Ireland has yet to ratify the Protocol, but it did finally sign it last year and ratification is the next step. Again, since this is international law, the CESCR won’t have enforcement powers – but there’s plenty of potential to shine the world’s spotlight on Ireland, and how it fails to adhere to its international obligations. Abortion rights campaigners should call for the government to ratify the Protocol now.

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About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

8 responses »

  1. Unfortunately, medical people sometimes act like scared herd animals when a tough decision has to be made. Ireland has enabled too much abuse from its Catholic church and the politicians they own. Feminist activism is hard and requires sacrifice, but worse to let the lives of women and children continue to be sacrificed to the comfort of old men.

    Reply
  2. International laws are pretty much ineffective.

    Reply
    • That’s not entirely true, certainly in an Irish context. The only reason there’s been any progress at all in legislating for abortion here is because of the European Court decision. Irish elites are extremely conscious of the country’s status in the global order, and they really don’t like being shown up as non-compliant with their obligations. Which doesn’t mean they’ll always take the actions needed to comply, but it does mean highlighting their non-compliance can be a useful tactic.

      Reply
      • Had any international laws about gender equality made any difference in saudi. nations with sufficient economic clout can simply ignore them.

        Reply
  3. The UN Human Rights Committee has already taken Ireland to task over it’s abortion laws. In 2008 before the A,B,C case at the European Court the UN stated that:- “13. The Committee reiterates its concern regarding the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion in the State party. While noting the establishment of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, the Committee regrets that the progress in this regard is slow. (arts. 2, 3, 6, 26)
    The State party should bring its abortion laws into line with the Covenant. It should
    take measures to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies so that they do not have to
    resort to illegal or unsafe abortions that could put their lives at risk (article 6) or to
    abortions abroad (articles 26 and 6)”. CCPR/C/IRL/CO/3 . Ireland is up before the UN early next year. In October 2013 the UN will put their main points of concern to Ireland. Over the coming months is the time to complain to the UN on the failure of Ireland to live up to it’s human rights obligations and ask them to raise the issue with the Irish state.

    Reply
    • Thanks for that Jane. To clarify for readers, the Human Rights Committee are talking about the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the rights they refer to are the rights to life and equality. The HRC’s comments were made as part of a periodic review, and aren’t legally binding. Periodic review observations are also mainly of interest to scholars and human rights activists within the country, as few others ever take notice of them.

      A decision reached following a complaint to a treaty body isn’t legally binding either, but tends to reach a wider audience. That’s why I think it would be useful to have the mechanism available to bring such a complaint before the CESCR. Of course, there’s no reason a complaint couldn’t be brought right now before the HRC or the CEDAW committee for that matter.

      Reply

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