by Alexandra Topping
Thursday 28 January 2010 13.27 GMT
Human rights group says women seeking information about terminations are told they will often cause irreparable damage
The Irish government came under increasing pressure to overhaul its ban on abortion today, after it was accused of exposing women to "grossly misleading" information about the procedure.
According to Human Rights Watch, Irish legislation – under which women who have an abortion in Ireland face a life sentence in prison if prosecuted – is putting women's health at risk and exposing them to deliberate misinformation from rogue pro-life agencies.
Women have been told they may become infertile, require a hysterectomy or possibly need a colostomy bag after an abortion by agencies that target women seeking advice about unwanted pregnancies, says the report.
It comes as Ireland waits for a landmark ruling from the European court of human rights on the case of three women who accuse the government of putting their health at risk by forcing them to travel abroad for terminations.
"Women in need of abortion services should, as a matter of international law and human decency, be able to count on support from their government as they face a difficult situation," said Marianne Mollmann, the women's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But in Ireland they are actively stonewalled, stigmatised, and written out."
According to the report, the government limits information about legal abortion services and has failed to crack down on false claims from "rogue" agencies masquerading as unwanted pregnancy support groups.
One 29-year-old woman was shown a video of ultrasound images and pictures of mothers by an agency called "British Alternatives".
"[The woman] put a model of a small foetus in my hand ... told me to name my baby, asked me how I would feel if I killed the baby," she said.
Another woman described being harassed over the phone by a pro-life agency for weeks: "They would ask 'Is your baby still alive? Have you killed it yet?'."
The Irish government recently launched a campaign urging women who feel that have been given false information about abortions to inform the authorities, but this assumes that women have access to the correct information, said Mollmann.
"This is abdicating their responsibility and putting it on the shoulders of already distressed women. The government needs to take decisive action to shut down and prosecute these rogue agencies," she said.
It is currently illegal to have an abortion in Ireland under any circumstances, unless the life of the pregnant woman is at risk, although women have the legal right to terminate their pregnancy abroad.
According to UK Department of Health figures, 4,600 women who had abortions in the UK in 2008 gave Irish addresses, but the real number of Irish women having terminations is likely to be significantly higher, said Mollmann.
"This law does not stop women getting abortions but it does prevent them getting one in a timely manner, which increases the risk involved," she said.
The difficult economic situation in Ireland is making it increasingly difficult for some women to meet the cost of an abortion, estimated by HRW at between €800 and €1000 (£690 and £862) for the procedure and travel costs, said Niall Behan, CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association.
"We are increasingly seeing women who can't travel being forced to look at other options that are not safe. There is evidence to suggest that women are having illegal abortions, not on a huge scale, but on any scale is unacceptable," he said.
The Pro-Life Campaign in Ireland has previously accused the IFPA of creating unnecessary fears about women's health and argues that Ireland without abortion is the safest country in the world in which to be pregnant.
In the case currently before the European court , three women, known as A, B and C, are arguing their right to privacy and family life have been violated.
One of the women who had a termination became pregnant while undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer and feared for her health and that of her child. Another is a former alcoholic and drug addict whose four children were in care. She feared her pregnancy would prevent her getting her children back, and borrowed cash from a money lender to finance the termination. A judgment is expected in the autumn.