Ireland’s abortion laws are being challenged in a landmark European court hearing which could overturn the Republic’s sovereign right to protect unconditionally “the life of the unborn”.
Three women living in Ireland claim the country's abortion ban violates the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.
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”.
The case will be heard on Wednesday in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with Irish 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.
Abortion was outlawed under an 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 now challenging that law are claiming that 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 had been 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 this week’s one-day 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.
“They are understandably very often apprehensive, having had to travel for hours or days to reach an unfamiliar clinic in England.
“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.
“As doctors, we’re concerned at the needless burden of additional risk caused by treatment delays. 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.”