The right to health is a fundamental human right. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The right to health includes not only the right to healthcare, but also equality in access to healthcare and the power of decision-making over your own body.
Gender Equality in Healthcare
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrines the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR), which monitors the implementation of this Covenant, holds that gender equality in access to healthcare is one of the “underlying determinants of health”. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) asserts women’s entitlement to specific gender-related healthcare and requires that States “shall ensure women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy”.
Article 40.3.3 (the 8th Amendment) of the Irish Constitution constitutes a major interference with a pregnant person’s right to health by preventing them from being able to terminate a pregnancy when necessary to preserve their health. It means that healthcare professionals are left in the extremely difficult situation of having to judge when the risk to the pregnant person becomes not just a serious risk to health, or a risk to life, but a “real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life”. There have been cases where women who need treatment for terminal illnesses such as cancer have been denied this treatment because they are pregnant. Where pregnancy precludes access to healthcare, this is not only gender-based discrimination in access to healthcare but also a profound violation of the right to health.
Equality of Access to Healthcare
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) holds that non-discrimination and equality are fundamental components of the right to health. While many pregnant people are forced to travel for abortions to preserve their health, which increases their suffering, often this option is not even available to those who need assistance or permission to travel abroad.
The 8th Amendment poses a particular danger to the healthcare of pregnant migrants who do not have the same ease of travel as EU citizens living in Ireland. In addition, economic constraints have particular impact on the right to health of pregnant people living in direct provision. People in prostitution without resources or papers to travel, including those who have been trafficked, are also much more impacted by the 8th Amendment. Those living with disabilities face more difficulties in travelling for healthcare.
Sexual and Reproductive Rights
The OHCHR asserts that the right to health includes a person’s right to be in charge of their own sexual and reproductive health “free of coercion”. Sexual and reproductive rights include the right to decide when to have children. The OHCHR further recognises the particular vulnerability of adolescent girls to early and/or unwanted pregnancies and that their right to health is dependent on “health care that respects confidentiality and privacy and includes appropriate mental, sexual and reproductive health services and information.” The UNCESCR has said that States must undertake “preventative, promotive and remedial action to shield women from the impact of harmful traditional cultural practices and norms that deny them their full reproductive rights”.
The ICCL is calling for a YES vote on 25 May in order to ensure that all women can enjoy their right to healthcare during pregnancy.