UN Human Rights Committee Chairman Nigel Rodley has said Irish law clearly treats women who are raped as a "vessel", with regard to them being unable to have an abortion in the country.

He made the remarks as Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

Mr Rodley said the he was sorry that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill did not extend to the right to the health of women.

He said: "Life without quality of life is not something many of us have to choose between and to suggest that, regardless of the health consequences of a pregnancy, a person may be doomed to continue it at the risk of criminal penalty is difficult to understand.

"Even more so regarding rape when the person doesn't even bear any responsibility and is by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more."

The chairman said the recognition of the primary right to life of the woman, who is an existing human being, has to prevail over that of the unborn child.

He said he cannot begin to understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former.

He said it was good to see that in 2013 that was clarified. 

Ms Fitzgerald has told the committee that it would take another referendum to make abortion permissible on other grounds such as fatal foetal abnormalities.

The minister pointed out the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill that was enacted last year gives clarity to some women on when they can avail of an abortion if their life is in danger.

She also said guidelines outlined for health professionals giving clarity on abortion were an important development.

Ms Fitzgerald said the law was brought in after much discussion in Oireachtas committees, which informed the passing of the legislation. 

In response to questions from the committee, she conceded that opinion polls taken on the topic indicated a "changing view" by the public on many aspects of the availability of abortion.

She said the Government funded agencies to give high quality information to women facing crisis pregnancy. She said that the number of women travelling abroad for abortions has reduced. 

Symphysiotomies raised at committee

Meanwhile, Ms Fitzgerald has told the committee that symphysiotomies were carried out on a number of women without knowledge or consent.

But she said there is historical evidence that was not the situation in all cases. 

Responding to questions the Minister said there were a number of emergency symphysiotomy procedures carried out, which were considered to be life-saving, where it was not possible to get consent.

In relation to the treatment of prisoners in Ireland, the minister told the committee there are 500 fewer prisoners today than there were two years ago. 

She said there have been big changes in Mountjoy Prison with sanitation in every cell.

Responding to questions on provision of mental health care to asylum seekers, Noel Dowling, head of the Refugee Reception and Integration Agency, said all asylum seekers in direct provision are entitled to the same health services as an Irish citizen including mental health.

In relation to facilities provided to families in direct provision, Mr Dowling said while applicants may wish for material things in life they have their basic needs met.