Irish Examiner Wednesday 9th December 2009
A Thin Blue Line
Women don’t give up their human rights when they get pregnant and the state should not be able to take them away with impunity, writes Niall Behan chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association
A CHALLENGE to Ireland's restrictive laws on abortion at the European Court of Human Rights today major landmark for the furthering of women', reproduc¬tive rights.
Three women known as A, B & C are challenging Ireland's criminalisa¬tion of abortion in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the application of the law jeopardised their health and their wellbeing in violation of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
This case, involving three women who travelled abroad for abortion services, concerns some of the most intimate and private decision making that a woman must make - decisions that no woman makes easily.
The experiences of the three appli¬cants are illustrative of the physical, emotional and financial hardship faced by over 138,000 women living in Ireland who are forced to travel abroad to access safe abortion services.
This case highlights in an interna¬tional forum the Irish Government's refusal to address the reality of wom¬en's hues and health in Irish law and policy.
Human Rights is a strategy that has, in the past, been successful in changing Ireland's laws and bringing Ireland in line with internationally' accepted norms of human rights such as in the case of Norris v Ireland and Open Door and Well Woman v Ireland.
The consistent restrictive application of Irish law means that women and girls who need to terminate their pregnancy are unwilling to risk their privacy and health before the Irish courts when there is no chance of an effective remedy.
The dysfunctional way women's need for abortion has been dealt with in Ireland has resulted in a lack of balance and clarity in Irish laws that ignore the reality of women and girls’ lives and disregards their rights.
The three women at the centre of the case being heard today in Strasbourg are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights to recognise that in its aim to "protect prenatal life", the state must have due regard for women's health and wellbeing.
This approach is consistent with human rights standards and reflects the overwhelming European consensus on abortion which allows for the balanc¬ing of women's health and wellbeing with that of the foetus by applying a more effective, less punitive approach than in force in Ireland.
Ireland has been repeatedly criticise by international human rights bodies in relation to access to safe and legal abortion services.
In July 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee's concluding observations on Ireland stated: "The state party should bring its abortion laws into line with the Covenant. It should take measures to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies so that they do not have to resort to illegal or unsafe abortions that could put their lives at risk (article 6) or to abortions abroad (articles 26 and 6)."
However, successive governments have unashamedly stated they have no intention of addressing abortion in the legislature or in the provision of guidelines to protect women's health and rights. Political leaders promised to legislate for the X case if the last abortion referendum was defeated.
Nothing has been done.
The fact that the European Court of Human Rights has not only ordered the Government to respond to the complaints of ABC, but has sent the case to its highest chamber of 17 judges speaks to the seriousness of the violations claimed.
This court only sits to hear exceptionally important cases - cases which raise serious questions affecting the interpretation of the European Human Rights Convention.
In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights delivered judgments in 1,881 applications, but only 21 of these were from the Grand Chamber.
The Grand Chamber will decide on the admissibility and the merits of the case; however it is clear that Ireland can no longer justify its denial of women's human rights to privacy, dignity, self determination and health.
The divisive way that the courts, legislators, the medical establishment has created a discourse that says "abortion is somehow different in Ireland: it's too sensitise, too controversial".
The IFPA does not agree. Women and girls need access to safe abortion services in every country around the world and Ireland is no different.
Agreeing on legislation and regula¬tions on abortion is always politically sensitive, controversial and difficult regardless of whether you live in Canada or Sweden or Zambia.
The IFPA hopes this case will help move the dialogue on abortion beyond this stalemate.
Using human rights to bring the focus back to women's and girls' health and wellbeing and calling the indignity of being forced to travel abroad for an abortion what it is - a violation of women and girls' rights that they are entitled to, because they are human.
Women and girls don't give up their human rights when they become pregnant nor can the state take them away with impunity.