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European Court Rules on Ireland's Abortion Ban


The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of one of three women who sought abortions, according to the Associated Press.

Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion violates pregnant women's right to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday, harshly criticizing Ireland's long inaction on the issue.

The Strasbourg, France-based court ruled that a pregnant woman fighting cancer should have been allowed to get an abortion in Ireland in 2005 rather than being forced to go to England for the procedure.

The judgment put Ireland under pressure to draft a law extending abortion rights to women whose pregnancies represent a potentially fatal threat to their own health. But Catholic leaders and anti-abortion activists insisted that Ireland had no legal obligation to do anything despite the court ruling.

The BBC and the New York Times also published stories on the decision.

Americans United for Life focused on the larger questions of whether countries could individually decide set their own abortion laws.

Abortion proponents' efforts to make abortion a "right" in Europe were thwarted today when the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that the European Convention on Human Rights contains no "right" to abortion. The Court rightly found that matters relating to abortion should be left to the member states' own domestic laws.

The Court dismissed two of the plaintiffs' health-based claims in A, B, C v. Ireland because it found no right had been violated under the Convention. In the remaining woman's situation, the Court stated that Ireland needs to take steps to better comply with its own domestic laws.

First Things' Joe Carter writes that this could continue a larger debate over whether abortion should be permitted in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.

The problem with the abortion law in Ireland, according to the court, was that while it allowed an exception where there is a "real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother, the Irish government makes it impossible for women to get medical advice or to obtain abortions in such cases. Because doctors and patients run the risk of "serious criminal conviction and imprisonment" if a doctor so much as concludes that abortion is an option because the mother's health is at risk from pregnancy, it makes the exemption untenable.

The Irish government will likely enact legislation setting out how and in what circumstances women with life-threatening conditions can obtain abortions.

What is most interesting about the decision is that it mainly involves an intramural debate in the antiabortion camp: Are legitimate threats to the life of the mother a valid reason to allow for an abortion?

Reuters' FaithWorld blog includes details on the case.

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.

Tom Heneghan reported last year on how the case was being described as the European version of Roe v. Wade.

This has been described as "Europe's Roe v. Wade case" (here and here) because a Court ruling would be an authoritative interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights to which 47 European states are parties and with which they must comply. "Domestic courts have to apply the Convention," the ECHR's FAQ says. "Otherwise, the European Court of Human Rights would find against the State in the event of complaints by individuals about failure to protect their rights."

The BBC has more information on the various abortion laws in European countries.

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