Irish Times Wednesday December 9th 2009
Legal challenge to abortion law a 'momentous day'
CARL O'BRIEN Chief Reporter
THE SPONSORS of a legal challenge to Ireland’s abortion laws, due to be heard at the European Court of Human Rights today, say their case represents a “momentous day” for reproductive rights.
The case, taken by three women who say their health was put at risk by being forced to go abroad for abortions, will be heard before the court’s grand chamber of 17 judges.
If successful, the court’s ruling could lead to the liberalisation of the State’s abortion laws. At present, abortion is only permitted in the circumstances of the 1992 “X” case, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.
The case will be watched closely by observers, given a ruling by the same court in recent years which resulted in Poland being instructed to guarantee access to legal abortions.
Based in Strasbourg, the court, which is separate from the EU, adjudicates on human rights issues among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights – now incorporated into Irish law – the Government is obliged to act on whatever decisions are made by the courts or risk flouting international laws.
The identities of the women, known as A, B and C, will remain confidential as the case proceeds.
They include a woman who ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb; a woman who received chemotherapy for cancer; and a woman whose children were placed in care as she was unable to cope.
They argue that the restrictions on abortion, as well as a lack of post-abortion care and counselling, amounted to a violation of their human rights.
They also say the lack of any effective legal remedy in Ireland meant taking a case in the State would have been costly and futile, and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity.
The Government, however, is expected to argue that the case should be heard in the Irish courts.
It says the recent “Ms D” case – which centred on the right of a 17-year-old girl in the care of the HSE to travel for an abortion – shows that the issue of abortion is arguable in the domestic courts.
It also robustly challenges suggestions by the women that there is a lack of post-abortion care or counselling in Ireland.
In addition, the women’s claim that they experienced “inhuman or degrading treatment” is contested on the basis that aftercare and post-abortion counselling services are available in Ireland.
The Government will be represented at the court in Strasbourg by a team led by Attorney General Paul Gallagher, as well as constitutional lawyers Brian Murray SC and Donal O’Donnell SC.
In a statement yesterday, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) said today was a “landmark day for reproductive rights in Ireland”. “It is our view that the criminalisation of abortion in Ireland is disproportionate and unnecessary; the law fails to adequately protect a woman’s health and wellbeing and has violated the rights of the applicants,” the association said.
Criticising the motives of the IFPA, the Pro-Life Campaign said the case ignored the fact that Ireland without abortion was “the safest country in the world in which to be pregnant”, and there was growing evidence that abortion had very serious negative consequences for some women.
Dr Berry Kiely of the Pro-Life Campaign said: “It is regrettable that the IFPA creates unnecessary fears about women’s health in an attempt to have abortion foisted on Ireland by a European court.”