Ireland’s abortion laws are being challenged in a landmark European court hearing today which could overturn the Republic’s sovereign right to protect unconditionally “the life of the unborn”.
Three women living in Ireland claim the Republic’s abortion ban violates the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.
The case comes two months after Ireland approved the European Union’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.
Backed by the Irish Family Planning Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the three anonymous women – identified only as “A, B and C” in court documents – say that being forced to travel abroad for abortions endangered their “health and wellbeing” as safeguarded by the Convention.
The case is being heard in the European Court of Human Rights, with government lawyers arguing that the safeguards of the Human Rights Convention cannot be interpreted as endorsing the right to abortion. They will also insist that, despite the abortion ban, Ireland does supply post-abortion care and counselling.
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, who argue that rights are attached to “pre-natal life”.
The significance of the case has been highlighted by a decision to hear it before a 17-judge “Grand Chamber” of the Human Rights court, instead of the usual seven-judge hearing.
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 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“.
After today’s hearing, the final ruling is excepted next year. if the women win their case, Irish abortion law may have to be adjusted to take account of the health and well-being of pregnant women.
Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the charity which provides abortions and contraception in Britain to women travelling from the Republic of Ireland, commented:
“Hundreds of women travel each year to BPAS from the Republic of Ireland in order to access safe, legal abortion care. This is provided to women in almost every other country as a matter of necessary and responsible law-making.”.
BPAS Medical Director Patricia Lohr said there could never be any “moral justification” for putting barriers between women and medical care:
“Women from the Republic of Ireland often arrive for treatment alone, because they can’t afford to bring their partner or mother to accompany them.
“It’s disturbing that the law in Ireland forces women to pay privately for care abroad. This creates weeks of delay before seeing a doctor while women try to borrow or save up money to pay for travel, accommodation and for their abortion.”
She went on: “The ban means that doctors in Ireland are not routinely issued with proper training and guidance to care for patients in the extremely common situation of seeking an abortion.
“Post-abortion aftercare and follow-up is not easily available in Ireland, meaning women may not get help if they need it, or have to pretend they’ve had a miscarriage to get help.
“You don’t have to be medically qualified to understand that the Irish abortion ban risks women’s physical health, requires abortions to be performed later than necessary, and creates serious emotional upset for women at an already stressful time.”
BPAS, a registered charity since 1968, carried out around 60,000 terminations of pregnancy in 2008.
The organisation says its non-NHS funded clients mostly come to the UK for help from the Republic of Ireland, the North and Italy.