Irish Women Challenge Abortion Ban In European Human Rights Court
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is currently considering the admissibility of a legal challenge by Irish women, who claim their rights were denied when they were forced to terminate their pregnancies outside Ireland.
The case has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg by three women known as A, B and C.. Their identities will remain confidential during the proceedings at the Court. ABC v. Ireland has particular gravity because it is the first direct challenge to Irish abortion law by a group of women. The case focuses on whether the women's human rights were infringed because they were unable to terminate their pregnancies in Ireland. The women claim the restrictive nature of Irish law on abortion jeopardized their health and well being. Traveling abroad placed "enormous physical, emotional and financial burdens" upon them. The law created delays and hardships for each woman, resulting in each of them having a later abortion, creating greater risk to their health.
Abortion restrictions interfered with the most intimate aspects of their private and family lives without adequate justification, they say. This, they submit, is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for one's "private and family life." In addition, they also claim the abortion laws impeded the ability of some of them to obtain necessary follow-up medical care upon their return to Ireland.
The women, who are represented by the Irish Family Planning Association, say there is a lack of any effective remedy at home and Irish law is in inadequate. They also say that taking a case to the Irish courts would have been costly, futile and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity. The women's complaints are based on four alleged violations of articles in the European Convention on Human Rights, including protection from "inhuman or degrading treatment" and freedom from discrimination. First, the women argue that their human rights are being violated because Ireland's abortion ban violates their right to privacy in all family, home and personal interests, and their entitlement to no public interference from any public authority in exercising this right (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Second, the ban violates their right to be free from inhumane and degrading treatment (Article 3) because women seeking abortions are stigmatized and suffer increased feelings of guilt, as well as difficulty securing follow-up care. Third, the ban breaches their right to life (Article 2) because the Irish government has not provided any clear legislation about when abortion may be legally carried out under the exception reserved for saving the mother's life. Fourth, the women allege that Irish abortion law discriminates on the basis of sex and financial status (Article 14). Thus, the women argue that forced travel and childbirth, endangerment of pregnant women's lives and discrimination based on sex and financial status violate their rights.
Ireland (both Northern Ireland and the Republic) has an exceptionally restrictive law on abortion, which allows abortion only when the life of the woman is in danger. In practice, however, abortion is unavailable in Ireland in almost all circumstances due to ambiguity about when a physician may legally perform a life-saving operation. The law also fails to make any provision for a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape or incest, experiencing severe fetal abnormality or at risk of permanent bodily harm such as blindness, diabetes, kidney or heart disease. Official figures show that over 7,000 women travel each year to England for abortions from the Ireland. This figure is based upon the number of women providing Irish addresses (from the Republic and Northern Ireland) and vastly undercounts the actual number of women travelling, some of whom may give false addresses in England or travel to other countries like Belgium and the Netherlands.
All three women submitting the case to Strasbourg decided to travel to England to have an abortion. The group includes a woman who ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus develops outside the womb. She had taken the morning-after pill the day after intercourse, but was advised by two different doctors that it had not only failed, but had given rise to a significant risk that it would be an ectopic pregnancy. Another of the women had undergone chemotherapy for cancer treatment. She was unable to find a doctor willing to make a determination about whether her life would be at risk if she continued to term, or to give her clear advice as to how the fetus might have been affected. The third woman, whose four children were placed in foster care as a result of problems she faced as an alcoholic and because she was unable to cope, was unmarried, unemployed and living in poverty.
The impossibility for these women to have an abortion in Ireland made the procedure unnecessarily expensive, traumatic and complicated.
The decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the case is expected shortly. It shall be binding on Ireland and must be complied with by the Irish authorities.
9 July 2009