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European human rights court faults Ireland on abortion ban

By Reuters Staff
December 16, 2010

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(Photo: European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, January 30, 2009/Vincent Kessler)

The European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland on Thursday for stopping a Lithuanian cancer sufferer from terminating a pregnancy, in a blow to the predominantly Catholic country and its tough abortion laws. In a final ruling, the rights court found Ireland had not respected the privacy and family rights of the Lithuanian woman, who was living in Ireland and feared a pregnancy could trigger a relapse of her cancer, in remission at the time.

The court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, ordered Ireland to pay 15,000 euros ($19,840) in damages to the woman, who was forced to travel to Britain, where the laws are more liberal, to have an abortion. Terminating a pregnancy has long been a fraught issue in Ireland, where some of the toughest abortion laws in Europe allow terminations only when the mother’s life is in danger.

“The Court concluded that neither the medical consultation nor litigation options, relied on by the Irish government, constituted effective and accessible procedures which allowed (her) to establish her right to a lawful abortion in Ireland,” it said a statement on the ruling. Here is a court press release and the full text of the judgment.

Ireferendum 1reland’s Health Minister Mary Harney said the government would have to introduce a law clarifying when abortion is legal in Ireland. Currently, a woman can have a termination if she has cervical cancer, an ectopic pregnancy or high blood pressure. “Clearly we have to legislate there is no doubt about that,” she told national broadcaster RTE.  “I think the essence of the judgment is that we have constitutional provisons and we need to give legal effect to them.”

(Photo: Pro-Life Alliance poster for a referendum on abortion in Ireland, March 4, 2002/Paul McErlane)

The court rejected appeals by two other women, both Irish, who also had travelled to Britain in 2005 for abortions. One was an unemployed, former alcoholic who was suffering from depression, living in poverty and trying to recover custody of four children from foster care when she got pregnant. The other did not want to become a single parent and feared an extra-uterine pregnancy.

Julie Kay, lead legal counsel for the plaintiffs, called the verdict “monumental” and said the European human rights court had recognised that Ireland’s courts had “turned a blind eye” to the problems women had gaining access to abortion services.

Read our full story by Gilbert Reilhac from Strasbourg here. Our Dublin bureau collected some reactions copied below. One major exception was the Roman Catholic Church, whose Catholic Communications Office had no comment when called and posted no reaction on its website. That the ruling was coming today was known in advance, so they cannot say they were taken by surprise.

referendum 2The Irish Family Planning Association Chief Executive if IFPA Niall Behan said in a statement:  “Today’s decision is a landmark one for Ireland and, in particular for women and girls. As a first and immediate step, we are calling on the government to set out how it intends to address today’s ruling, and ensure that no further violations of human rights take place because of the State’s failure to offer safe and legal abortion services in – albeit – limited circumstances.”

(Photo: Abortion referendum posters in Dublin’s O’Connell Street ahead of a referendum on abortion in Ireland, March 3, 2002/Paul McErlane)

Out on the streets of Dublin, opinions were mixed. “People should be entitled to do what they want. It’s stupid that people have to go to England to get it done,” said Joan Grant, 65, who was waiting for bus in central Dublin. Barbara-Ann, a 29-year-old solicitor said she wasn’t anti-abortion but that she still felt legislation limiting it was important. “It’s a completely personal choice but I think there should be barriers in place so that you’re not getting it (abortion) at lunchtime,” she said. “It’s good not to have it so easily accessible because of the right of life to the unborn.”

Ireland’s Pro-Life Campaign called for a referendum on abortion.  “The Irish people must now consider this whole question of protection for unborn life and we can do one of two things. We can go on the lines of the Supreme Court and implement legislation based on a decision taken on faulty medical understanding or we can have a referendum which seeks to protect the unborn and back that up with legislation,” the campaign’s legal director, Dr William Binchy, told the Irish Times.

Binchy said Dublin did not have to legislate because the court recognised that states could set their own abortion policies.  “However, if a state does have grounds for abortion the court says these grounds should be clarified through legislation,” he said  “We do not have legislation in this country and the argument that succeeded in the court was, in the absence of that legislation, people would be in a situation where they would not know where they stood.”

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