Dublin: Ireland`s constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday in a judgment that harshly criticized Ireland`s long inaction on the issue.
The judgment from the Strasbourg, France-based court will put Ireland under pressure to draft a law extending limited abortion rights to women whose pregnancies represent a potentially fatal threat to their own health.
Ireland has resisted taking that step despite a 1992 judgment from the Irish Supreme Court declaring that abortions should be considered legal in Ireland in all cases where the woman`s life would be endangered by continued pregnancy — including through threats to commit suicide. The delay has left the abortion rights of thousands of women in legal limbo, obliging many to travel overseas for the procedure.
The Strasbourg judges said Ireland was wrong to keep the legal situation unclear for women who received a doctor`s advice that their pregnancy could complicate their own medical problems.
They ruled in favor of one of three litigants who sued Ireland for allegedly failing to protect their rights to health and well-being under terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The successful litigant is a Lithuanian woman living in Ireland who, at the time of her pregnancy, was successfully battling cancer through chemotherapy and feared that her pregnancy would trigger a relapse of the disease. She testified that her doctors agreed, but none was willing to authorize an abortion.
She had to travel to England for an abortion. The European judges ruled she should have received an abortion in Ireland as a matter of medical urgency.
They ruled against two other litigants: one a woman who didn`t want to become a single mother, another who had four other children placed in state care. In both cases, the judges said they had failed to demonstrate that their pregnancies represented a risk to their health.
The Irish Family Planning Association, which brought the case on behalf of the three women, welcomed the verdict as likely to force Ireland to legislate along the lines of the 1992 Supreme Court judgment.
In the 1992 case, a pregnant 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a neighbor successfully sued the government to permit her to travel to England for an abortion. The government tried to stop her, arguing it could not facilitate an illegal act, even though she was threatening to commit suicide.
The Irish Supreme Court ruled that traveling to obtain abortions abroad was legal, and Ireland itself should provide abortions in cases where a continued pregnancy would threaten the life of the woman. Ireland in 1992 passed a law permitting women the right to travel abroad for abortions but has refused to pass a law spelling out the rules of granting abortions on medical grounds.
When the three women`s lawsuit was heard last year in Strasbourg, experts testifying on behalf of the women said Irish doctors continue to fear having anything to do with women who seek an abortion even on lifesaving medical grounds.
Lawyers for the government countered that several hundred abortions were taking place annually — without public acknowledgment — in Ireland in line with the Supreme Court order, so no new law was required.