Ireland’s abortion laws are in the human rights spotlight today in a landmark legal ruling which could overturn the country’s sovereign right to protect unconditionally “the life of the unborn”.
Three women living in Ireland want the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to declare the country’s long-standing abortion ban a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.
The three anonymous women – identified only as “A, B and C” in court documents – claim the ban forced them to travel abroad for abortions, endangering their “health and well-being”, which is safeguarded by the Convention.
Their case, backed by the Family Planning Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, was heard in the Strasbourg court a year ago.
The Government argued that the safeguards of the Human Rights Convention cannot be interpreted as endorsing the right to abortion – although Ireland does supply post-abortion care and counselling despite the ban.
The Government’s case that Ireland must retain the sovereign right “to determine when life begins” is being supported by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and the European Centre for Law and Justice, which argue that rights are attached to “pre-natal life”.
Abortion was outlawed in Ireland by a 1861 rule which still sets life imprisonment as an option for women convicted of “unlawfully procuring a miscarriage”.
Ireland’s constitution “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
The ban was reinforced by public backing in a 1983 referendum.
The three women at the centre of the legal challenge say being forced to leave Ireland to terminate their pregnancies caused hardship and unnecessary costs.
One of the three had been diagnosed as at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, with the foetus developing outside the womb. Another had become pregnant while receiving chemotherapy for cancer. The third already had children who were taken into care because of her inability to cope.
They all complained in 2005 that the pro-life Irish law breached Human Right Convention guarantees of the “right to respect for private and family life, their ”right to life“, the ”prohibition of discrimination“ and ”prohibition of torture“.
Last year’s one-day court hearing took place just two months after Ireland approved the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, following guarantees that the country’s pro-life constitution would remain unaffected.
Ironically the threat now comes not from the EU but from the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, guardian of the Human Rights Convention.
If the women win their claim today, Irish abortion law may have to be adjusted - but not necessarily removed altogether – to take account of the health and well-being of pregnant women.