Irish Women Challenge Abortion Ban in European Human Rights Court

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Irish Women Challenge Abortion Ban in European Human Rights Court

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska

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
wellbeing. Travelling 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.

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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.