After gay marriage vote, Ireland's ready to move on abortion, Amnesty says

The landslide vote suggests "the country is ready to deal with difficult issues," said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.

Peter Morrison/AP
Ireland voted resoundingly in May to legalize gay marriage in the world's first national referendum on the issue, giving human rights advocates hope that the country is easing its historically conservative mentality.

The Irish government should heed the shifting of opinion demonstrated by the people's backing of gay marriage, by easing restrictions on abortion, the head of Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

Ireland voted to allow gay marriage last month in a referendum that signaled a major change in attitudes in what was once a strongly Catholic and socially conservative society.

But its abortion laws remain among the most restrictive in the world and a complete ban was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed if the mother's life is in danger.

"As an outsider, what it signifies is that the country is ready to deal with difficult issues," Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty told Reuters, referring to the same-sex marriage referendum which was backed by a landslide.

"The timing is right. On some of the taboo issues which Ireland historically has been more conservative on, public opinion is really shifting and it's important for the leaders to do the right thing."

Human rights group Amnesty says Ireland's constitution and abortion laws violate the fundamental human rights of women and girls, including their right to life, health, equality, privacy, and freedom from torture.

The system treats women as "child-bearing vessels," rather than individuals, the London-based group said in a report on Ireland's abortion law.

The death in 2012 of a woman after doctors refused to abort her dying fetus forced the government to change the law, provoking protest from both sides. Prime Minister Enda Kenny was sent letters written in blood for bringing in the legislation.

Amnesty said the new laws were unclear and the threat of prosecution for doctors still forces pregnant women to wait until their condition deteriorates to justify a medical intervention, with potentially devastating consequences.

"Ireland is the only country in the developed world which has these kind of laws," Shetty said. "These laws and practices are obsolete and outdated. The human cost is far too high, it leads to huge suffering."

The UN Human Rights Committee last year said Ireland should revise its abortion laws to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal fetal abnormality.

The government has said it would need to hold a referendum to further amend the law and has ruled out holding one before elections early next year.

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