Health Politics

Foetal Abnormality and Termination of Pregnancy. Labour TDs, Senators and MEPs Write to Health Minister

Dear Minister Reilly,

We write as Labour Party TDs, Senators and MEPs who wish to see legislation introduced in Ireland specifically to permit terminations of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal abnormality where sought by the pregnant woman.

We write in the context of the recent presentations provided to members of the Oireachtas by a group of four women who had to travel to England to terminate their pregnancies in cases where each pregnancy had revealed a fatal foetal abnormality. We do not believe that women facing such tragic and traumatic personal circumstances should be forced to travel out of this jurisdiction to terminate their pregnancies if they wish to do so. We believe that they should be able to access a continuum of medical care here in Ireland with their own medical advisers, to include termination of pregnancy if they wish. In the interests of their health, and in the interests of common humanity, we believe that women should be entitled to access terminations of pregnancy on grounds of fatal foetal abnormality in Ireland.

Further, on an analysis of the relevant law, and in particular the case of D v. Ireland (ECHR, 6th September 2005, Ref No 26499/02), we believe that legislation setting out the criteria whereby terminations of pregnancy may be carried out in cases of fatal foetal abnormality would be compatible with Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, and therefore capable of being introduced without
constitutional amendment.

We also believe that the issue of fatal foetal abnormality should come within the remit of the Expert Group set up to examine the implications of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in ABC v. Ireland (16th December 2010, Ref No 25579/05).  We note that the terms of reference of the Expert Group on the ABC v Ireland Judgment, as approved by Government on 29th November 2011, are as follows:

‘To examine the A, B and C v Ireland judgment of the European Court of Human Rights;

To elucidate its implications for the provision of health care services to pregnant women in Ireland;

To recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment taking into account the constitutional, legal, medical, and ethical considerations involved in the formulation of public policy in this area and the over-riding need for speedy action.’

We note further that a written answer to a Parliamentary Question was given by the Minister for Health on 16th May 2012  (, stating that:

‘The Expert Group is to report back to the Government within six months of establishment by means of a written report. The Group will meet on a periodic basis. I wish to assure the Deputy that the Group may receive written submissions from interested parties and additional relevant experts and professionals.’

Accordingly, as interested parties, we are presenting this letter as a written submission both to you and to the Expert Group.  We all greatly welcome the establishment of the Expert Group and are hopeful that it will recommend in due course the introduction of legislation to clarify the criteria under which terminations of pregnancy may be carried out in order to save a woman’s life.  We note that the Court in the ABC case concluded that the Irish Government had violated the right to privacy under Article 8 of the  onvention in respect of the third applicant, whose pregnancy had posed a risk to her life, because:

‘.. the authorities failed to comply with their positive obligation to secure to the third applicant effective respect for her private life by reason of the absence of any implementing legislative or regulatory regime providing an accessible and effective procedure by which the third applicant could have established whether she qualified for a lawful abortion in Ireland in accordance with Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution.’ (para 267 of the judgment).

However, in addition to considering the need for legislation in respect of terminations of pregnancy necessary to save women’s lives, we believe that the Expert Group should also consider the need for legislation in respect of terminations of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. We submit that the terms of reference of the Expert Group do encompass such cases.  Although none of the three Applicants in ABC had experienced pregnancies involving fatal foetal abnormality, the issue nonetheless arose in the ABC case judgment where the Court considered the earlier decision in D v. Ireland (ECHR, 6th September 2005, Ref No 26499/02).

In that case, which did concern fatal foetal abnormality, the Court found the application inadmissible because the applicant ‘did not comply with the requirement to exhaust domestic remedies as regards the availability of abortion in Ireland in the case of fatal foetal abnormality’ (para 103 of the judgment).

In the ABC case, the Irish Government argued that the three applicants should, like D, have brought their cases initially in their domestic courts. However, the Court ruled against the Government in respect of all three applicants, having concluded that their cases were significantly different from that of Ms D.

In respect of the first two applicants A and B, at para 148 of the judgment in the ABC case, the Court stated that:

‘..the balance of rights at issue in the D v. Ireland case were relevantly different from those at issue in the first and second applicants’ cases: in D v. Ireland the Court found that Ms D could have argued in the domestic courts, with some prospect of success, that the relevantbalance of competing interests was in her favour since one of the twin foetuses she was carrying was already dead and the other had an accepted fatal foetal abnormality.’

In respect of the third applicant C, again her case differed significantly from that of D in the earlier case. Here, the Court noted that C feared her pregnancy constituted a risk to her life and had complained under Article 8 about the lack of legislation implementing the constitutional right to an abortion in the case of such a risk (para 154). This was the argument that ultimately succeeded before
the Court.

In the D case, the Irish Government had successfully argued that:

‘there was “at least a tenable” argument which would seriously be considered by the domestic courts to the effect that a foetus was not an “unborn” for the purposes of Article 40.3.3 or that, even if it was an “unborn”, its right to life was not actually engaged as it had no prospect of life outside the womb. In the absence of a domestic decision, it was impossible to foresee that Article 40.3.3 clearly excluded an abortion in the applicant’s situation in Ireland.’ (para 69 of the judgment).

In accepting this argument, the Court made reference to the Fifth Progress Report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (15th November 2000). The Court noted that the Committee in the course of its deliberations had met the Masters of the three major maternity hospitals in Dublin.  At para 40 of the judgment, the Court noted that:

‘All three [Masters] spoke in favour of permitting in Ireland termination of pregnancy in cases of foetal abnormality (including neural tube defects – Ireland having the second highest rate in the world – and anencephaly) where the foetus would not survive to term or live outside the womb. Certain of the Masters noted that going abroad deprived a mother of a post-mortem on an aborted foetus and of full and proper advice and counselling on the source of the abnormality and the risk of recurrence in a future pregnancy and criticised the lack of ability to make any referral to a hospital providing the referral service or to make any arrangement for this to take place and for follow-up.’

At para 44 of the judgment, the Court noted further that, in the context of a constitutional referendum on abortion in 2002, at a press conference called on 27th February 2002 by the three Masters of the major obstetric/maternity hospitals in Dublin, the Masters stated again that the State should sanction abortion in certain cases including where a foetus would not survive outside of the womb (para. 44 of judgment).

The Court noted further that ‘Since abortions (in the case of a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life) were already available in Ireland and since the Masters of the main obstetric hospitals were not against terminations in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality…

the Court finds unsubstantiated the suggestion that the relevant declaratory and mandatory orders would not have been  implemented in good time [had the applicant sought a remedy before the domestic courts].’ (para 88 of the judgment).

Thus, the Court concluded in the D case that there was ‘a feasible argument to be made that the constitutionally enshrined balance between the right to life of the mother and of the foetus could have shifted in favour of the mother when the “unborn” suffered from an abnormality incompatible with life’ (para 90) and found that if she had initiated legal action before the Irish courts, the applicant’s
case would have been ‘an arguable one with sufficient chances of success’ to mean that a domestic legal remedy was therefore in principle available to her, and she should have pursued her case through the Irish courts before applying to the ECHR (para 92). Accordingly her application was deemed inadmissible.

The judgment of the Court in D v. Ireland clearly envisages that terminations of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal abnormality would be declared lawful in Ireland under Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, if any application were to be taken by a woman in such circumstances.  We believe that, given this legal analysis, the Expert Group should, alongside its consideration of the introduction of legislation setting out the criteria whereby terminations of pregnancy may be carried out in order to save a woman’s life (the direct issue on which the ECHR found against Ireland in the ABC case), also consider the introduction of legislation setting out the criteria whereby terminations of pregnancy may be carried out in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (as in the D case). We submit that legislation setting out criteria in both cases would be compatible with Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, and therefore capable of being introduced without constitutional amendment.

If at this stage the Expert Group is not in a position to consider the cases of pregnancy involving fatal foetal abnormality, we submit that the Group should at least acknowledge in its final report the pressing need for introduction of legislation to enable women facing such traumatic crisis pregnancies to have their necessary medical care take place in Ireland, including if they wish, the termination of
their pregnancy.

Finally, we submit that, whether the Expert Group makes any recommendation concerning cases of fatal foetal abnormality or not, it is incumbent on this Government to introduce legislation not only dealing with the cases of women whose pregnancy poses a risk to their lives, but also setting out the criteria whereby terminations of pregnancy may be carried out in cases of fatal foetal abnormality,
where the woman wishes in such circumstances.

We would be very grateful if you, and the Expert Group, could consider our submissions seriously, and we look forward to hearing from you.


Yours Sincerely,


Senator Ivana Bacik

Eric Byrne TD
Ciara Conway TD
Robert Dowds TD
Anne Ferris TD
Dominic Hannigan TD
Senator Aideen Hayden
Kevin Humphreys TD
Sean Kenny TD
John Lyons TD
Ged Nash TD
Derek Nolan TD
Senator Susan O’Keeffe
Aodhan O’Riordain TD
Ann Phelan TD
Emmet Stagg TD
Alex White TD
Nessa Childers MEP
Emer Costello MEP
Phil Prendergast MEP
CONTACTS: Senator Ivana Bacik, Leinster House.
Ciara Conway TD, Leinster House.



Previously on Bock:  No Country for Young Women

Favourites Politics Religion

No Country For Young Women

It’s Back to the Future for Ireland.  The whole country has climbed into a gigantic DeLorean and zapped itself back to the Eighties, where economic depression stalks the land and religious ideologues harangue pregnant women.

Last night on the Late Late show, three women told their stories of discovering that their unborn babies could never live outside the womb.  All of them wished fervently to bear a healthy child, but the reality was that it would never happen.  They asked to have their deliveries induced and they were refused.  In this God-fearing little country, they must bring their babies to full term, in the certain knowledge that those babies will be born dead.

What would you do?  They went abroad and had abortions.

Now let’s be clear about this.  Their babies did not simply have abnormalities, deformities  or disabilities.

In the case of these three women, their bodies were acting as life-support machines for babies that would never have survived outside the womb.  The mothers and fathers of these children give them a name.  They keep photos of the little life.  They grieve for them.  They bury them.  They tell their other children about them, children who also experience the bereavement, and they spend the rest of their lives loving them.  They spend the rest of their lives in a form of mourning that their emotionally-stunted religious detractors can never understand.

Anencephaly is a condition related to Spina Bifida.  It’s a neural tube defect in which the brain does not develop.  The baby shows all the signs of a living child, but has no brain and can in no circumstances exist independently.  When doctors determine that the victim of a road accident is brain dead, they can legally remove the artificial life support apparatus and allow the patient to die naturally, but when a woman in Ireland asks to have a baby with no brain delivered so as not to spend two, three or four months enduring the torture of such a thing, she is told NO.  You will become a life-support machine until such time as that child is delivered.  It matters nothing that you may be destroyed emotionally as a consequence.

That’s how our little republic treats women in such a heartbreaking fix.

It takes us right back to the Sheila Hodgers case, where a pregnant mother with cancer was allowed to die screaming rather than receive pain-killing drugs that might damage her foetus.  That happened in the Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, where so many other women were treated as lumps of meat, attacked, humiliated and defiled by the likes of Neary and Shine.  The Northern Ireland-trained staff nurse who blew the whistle on the extreme Catholic ethos of that hospital was hounded out of a job as a result.

On the Late Late Show last night, these women were called “murderesses”, a ridiculous word, revealing the antediluvian nature of the accuser, but that wasn’t the only debasement they experienced.  They reported being sneered at by a parliamentarian, Senator Ronan Mullen, who is of course inextricably bound up with the vile Youth Defence and Cóir and all the other manifestations of the Catholic extreme right in Ireland.

Make no mistake: Catholic or not, these people have little interest in  Christianity.  This is all about control.

The current government has had to make extremely difficult decisions on the economy.  While I disagree with many of their policies I don’t envy their task, but here comes the acid test.  Since they seem resolved to impose one savage budget after another, despite the extreme public backlash, will they have the balls to face down these heartless ideologues who would impose such suffering on young mothers?

Will we finally as a nation show some maturity instead of allowing decent, heartbroken women to skulk off like thieves?

Ronan Mullen, shame on you, and all those like you.

This isn’t the Eighties, though.  This time, people have the information and the means to fight back.