Irish abortion ban breaches human rights, court rules
Outside view of the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, eastern France, Thursday Dec. 16, 2010. (AP / Christian Lutz)
Published Thursday, December 16, 2010 11:12AM EST
Ireland's longstanding abortion ban violates the human rights of women to receive proper medical care when their lives are threatened by their pregnancy, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday.
The landmark ruling puts further pressure on Ireland's government to legalize abortion, at least in limited cases. The country's ruling party indicated changes might occur in the new year.
Members of the Strasbourg, France-based court sided with a Lithuanian national who was denied an abortion in Ireland, saying the law constitutes a human rights violation because it doesn't protect at-risk women.
In remission from cancer, the woman feared the unplanned pregnancy would cause a relapse and put her and the child at risk of death.
She obtained an abortion in England because, she claimed, she didn't get clear medical advice in Ireland about the risks of continuing the pregnancy.
The woman, an Irish resident, challenged the country's abortion law in 2005.
A doctor and woman can both be prosecuted for murder, under Irish laws dating back to 1861, if an abortion is later decided not to be medically necessary.
In the ruling released Thursday, the judges wrote that the law "constituted a significant chilling factor for women and doctors as they both ran a risk of a serious criminal conviction and imprisonment."
Court members heard arguments in December 2009 and agreed in a unanimous vote that women whose pregnancies present a fatal threat have the right to terminate the pregnancy.
The court ordered Ireland to pay her C15,000 ($20,000) in damages.
The judgment is drawing praise from the Irish Family Planning Association, which is calling on Ireland's government to end years of inaction.
"The very considered and clear view of the European Court of Human Rights leaves no option available to the Irish state other than to legislate for abortion services in cases where a woman's life is at risk," said IFPA chief executive Niall Behan in a statement.
Such legislation could be prepared and passed by legislators within days, said the IFPA, which brought the case forward to the 17-judge panel.
Ireland's health minister, Mary Harney, said she is confident legislation will be drafted but said the step will have to wait for the next government because the task will take some time. Ireland faces an unscheduled national election in the spring.
Harney noted that the government twice tried to resolve the issue with referendums in 1992 and 2001, but voters on both sides of the abortion argument rejected that constitutional amendment. In both cases, the government sought to limit the right to legal abortion only to cases where the woman was at risk of death, excluding suicide threats.
The case heard by the European Court of Human Rights also involved two other Irish women who travelled abroad for abortions but the court ruled their rights weren't violated.
One had four children in foster care and had an abortion to improve her chances of reuniting her family. The second wasn't prepared to become a single parent.
The judges said the first two women had failed to demonstrate that their pregnancies represented a sufficient risk to their health.
All three women testified Ireland's abortion ban stigmatized and humiliated them, and the experience was unnecessarily expensive, complicated and traumatic.
Abortions are banned under criminal law in Ireland. A conviction carries a life sentence.
It's not the first time the law has been tested.
The European Court of Human Rights's judgment follows a 1992 ruling by Ireland's Supreme Court, which found abortion should be lawful if the pregnancy poses a real and substantial risk to the mother's life. However, the government refused to budge and the law went untouched.
That same year, a referendum granted Irish women the right to travel abroad for an abortion.
In an 11-6 verdict, the 17 Strasbourg judges said Ireland was wrong to keep the legal situation unclear and said the Irish government had offered no credible explanation for its failure. The Irish judge on the panel, Mary Finlay Geoghegan, sided with that majority view.
Most nations in the 47-member Council of Europe allow broad access to abortion. Malta and Vatican City ban the practice outright, while several others seek to limit it to exceptional cases including rape and fetal abnormalities.
With files from The Associated Press