By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - A United Nations human rights panel has told Ireland it should revise its highly restrictive abortion laws and that allegations of abuse of women and children at Catholic-run homes must be better investigated.
Following months of polarizing debate in the Roman Catholic country, Ireland's parliament voted to allow limited access to abortion for the first time last year but restricted it to cases when a woman's life is in danger.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee remained highly critical of the law, saying Ireland should revise it to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risks to the health of the mother, or fatal fetal abnormality.
"The Committee reiterates its previous concern regarding the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion in the state," it said following hearings last week when Committee Chairman Nigel Rodley said Irish law treated women who were raped as a "a vessel and nothing more".
The government has said it would need to hold a referendum to further amend the law and deputy prime minister Joan Burton last week ruled out the possibility of a plebiscite on abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities taking place before the next parliamentary election due in 2016.
The committee said it was also concerned at the lack of prompt and effective investigations into all allegations of abuse, mistreatment or neglect of women and children at state-funded Catholic homes such as the notorious Magdalene laundries.
Ireland was shocked earlier this year by revelations of the practices at Catholic-run "mother-and-baby homes" from the 1920s to the 1960s following the discovery of an unmarked grave where the bodies of up to 800 babies could be buried.
Dublin has ordered an investigation into the treatment of children at the institutions, used to house children born out of wedlock, including accusations of forced adoptions and unusually high mortality rates among children housed there.
But the government, which has changed its minister for children twice in two months, has delayed the publication of the terms of reference for the investigation until parliament returns from its summer recess in September.
The Committee also urged a more thorough investigation into cases of symphysiotomy - childbirth operations which sever one of the main pelvic joints and unhinges the pelvis - that were performed on some 1,500 girls and women in hospitals between 1944 and 1987 without their free and informed consent.
While the Church has seen its public influence wane since the 1980s after a string of child sex abuse scandals, those in senior public office positions such as the President and members of the judiciary remain obliged to take religious oaths. The committee recommended that this practice should end.
It said legislation should also be introduced to prohibit discrimination in access to schools on the grounds of religious beliefs and was concerned over the slow progress in increasing access to secular education.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)