European court to rule on Irish abortion laws


THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights will next week issue a ruling on whether Ireland’s restrictions on abortion violate women’s human rights.

The ruling, which could have significant implications for Irish abortion law, is based on a case taken by three women in Ireland who say their health was put at risk by being forced to go abroad for abortions.

The court is due to issue its ruling at a public sitting of the court’s grand chamber next Thursday, rather than a more common written judgment.

The Strasbourg-based court, which is separate from the EU, adjudicates on human rights issues among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe.

As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights – now incorporated into Irish law – the Government is obliged to remedy any breaches of the convention.

The identities of the women – known as A, B and C – are confidential.

Two of them are Irish and one is a Lithuanian national who was residing in Ireland.

All of them travelled to the UK to have an abortion after becoming pregnant unintentionally.

They include a woman who ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb; a woman who received chemotherapy for cancer; and a woman whose children were placed in care as she was unable to cope.

The ruling could have significant implications for abortion law in Ireland.

All judgments of the court are binding on the state involved, meaning that signatories are expected to change their laws to accommodate the rulings.

If the court rules that the women’s rights were breached, it is likely the Government would be under pressure to legislate for abortion under the circumstances of the 1992 “X” case, where the Supreme Court ruled that terminating a pregnancy was lawful where the life and health of the mother were at risk.

Equally, however, the court could rule that the availability of medical treatment, support and advice in Ireland meant the women’s rights were not breached; or that the applicants should have their cases heard first in Irish courts to satisfy the requirement of the convention to avail of all domestic legal remedies.

The women – supported by the Irish Family Planning Association – argued before the court last December that they were subject to indignity, stigmatisation and ill-health as a result of being forced to travel abroad for their abortions.

The Government, however, robustly defended the laws and said that Ireland’s abortion laws were based on “profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish society”.

It argued that European Convention on Human Rights had consistently recognised the traditions of different countries regarding the rights of unborn children.

However, it maintained that the women’s challenge sought to undermine these principles and align Ireland with countries with more liberal abortion laws.

In a statement yesterday, Dr Ruth Cullen of the Pro Life Campaign – which participated in the case as a third party – said the court had a strong duty to make clear the distinction between abortion and necessary medical treatments in pregnancy.

“The Pro Life Campaign hopes the court’s findings respect human life at all stages of development. After all, without the right to life all other rights are meaningless,” she said.

However, the Irish Family Planning Association’s chief executive, Niall Behan, said that the experiences of the three women illustrated the reality faced by thousands of women in Ireland every year.

“Clients attending for counselling with the IFPA continually express anger and frustration that they have to travel outside of the jurisdiction for health services they feel should be available to them at home,” he said.