Irish abortion laws set for human rights ruling


Strasbourg court to rule on three women’s claim that Irish abortion ban violates European human rights convention

A pro-abortion demonstration in the centre of Dublin
Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Ireland’s abortion laws face a landmark ruling today that could overturn the republic’s sovereign right to protect unconditionally “the life of the unborn”.
Three women living in Ireland want a European court to declare the country’s longstanding abortion ban a violation of the European convention on human rights, to which Ireland is a signatory.
The three 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 wellbeing, which is safeguarded by the convention.
Their case, backed by the Irish Family Planning Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, was heard in the European court of human rights in Strasbourg a year ago.
The Irish government argued that the safeguards of the convention could not be interpreted as endorsing the right to abortion. Its 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 “prenatal life”.
Abortion was outlawed in Ireland in 1861 and life imprisonment remains a sentencing 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 cost.
One of the three had been diagnosed as at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops 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 Irish law breached the human rights convention’s guarantees of the right to respect for private and family life, their right to life, the prohibition of discrimination and prohibition of torture.
The one-day court hearing last year took place two months after Ireland approved the EU’s Lisbon treaty following guarantees that the country’s anti-abortion constitution would remain unaffected. 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 wellbeing of pregnant women.

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