After three women were forced to travel abroad to receive their abortions, a legal case on their behalf before 17 judges in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg argues that Ireland’s 148-year-old abortion ban is discriminatory.
The case presents an expansiveness of legal arguments about abortion that may influence nations around the world. It is being closely watched not only by other Catholic European nations (Poland, Spain, Malta), but also U.S. anti-abortion lobbyists that have been allowed to submit arguments to the court. As a group, the Family Research Council and the US Alliance Defence Fund filed a brief that contends "the stakes are high for all of Europe" and that Ireland’s "defence of innocent life is under attack".
From the report on the case–which represents women known only as A, B, and C–in The Guardian:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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"All three women complain that the impossibility for them to have an abortion in Ireland made the procedure unnecessarily expensive, complicated and traumatic. In particular, that restriction stigmatised and humiliated them and risked damaging their health and, in the third applicant’s case, even her life," said a court statement. …
… Lawyers and lobby groups for the three argue that the abortion ban breaches several articles of the European convention on human rights, which is policed by the court, notably the rights to life and to privacy and family life, as well as bans on inhuman and degrading treatment and on discrimination.
Meanwhile, the Irish government’s eight-member legal team argues that lessened abortion restrictions violate the right to life of the fetus; that Ireland offers post-abortion counseling and care despite the ban (thus revealing its humanity); and that the ban enjoys broad support in Ireland, tested by three referendums.
Abortion in Ireland has been illegal since 1861, and the "right to life of the unborn" is part of the nation’s constitution. Violations can bring a life sentence in prison. As Sky News reports, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling on the case of a pregnant 14-year-old led to today’s circumstances where women must travel abroad to obtain abortions. As The Guardian reports, drawing on data from the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), at least 138,000 women have traveled abroad (usually England) since 1980 in order to obtain abortions. Abortions in Ireland are permitted to save the life of the mother.
In this particular case, one of the women had her four children placed in foster case; she sought an abortion to avoid jeopardizing her chance to re-connect with them. Another women faced an extrauterine pregnancy. The third–a Lithuanian living in Ireland–was in remission from cancer, and was concerned about the affect of the pregnancy on her and her fetus. All three experienced medical complications as they traveled back to Ireland.
Julie Kay, representing the three women, said that they "had to borrow money to travel abroad for ‘clandestine’ abortions and dismissed as bogus government claims that abortions were allowed in cases where the women’s lives were at risk. She said that pursuing the case in court in Ireland, as demanded by Gallagher, would have been ‘futile and costly.’"
The women are being supported by the IFPA and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service on a complaint that took four years to be heard in Strasbourg and on which no ruling is expected until next year.
"Today is a hugely significant day for reproductive rights in Ireland. The fact that Ireland’s draconian laws on abortion have been put under the spotlight is a landmark for women living in Ireland," said the IFPA. "Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion are totally out of step with those of its European neighbours … Women and girls do not give up their human rights when they become pregnant."
Patricia Lohr, medical director of the BPAS, said: "There is never any moral justification for the law to place a barrier between women and medical care. The Irish abortion ban risks women’s physical health, requires abortions to be performed later than necessary, and creates serious emotional upset."
Sky News spoke with Susan McKay, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who added that by forcing women to travel abroad to obtain abortions, the ban discriminates against those who can’t afford it.
"There is still a culture of secrecy in Ireland. It’s not an issue of reproductive health like it is in other countries."
She said the Irish public’s attitude to abortion had completely changed since the 1982 (referendum that affirmed the abortion ban).
A majority of people now recognise that some women face harsh dilemmas in pregnancy and have a right to choose abortion in certain circumstances, she added.
"Then it was seen as a black and white issue, but a series of cases since then have shown it isn’t," she added. …
A ruling from the human rights court is not expected until next year. If the women win, the decision compels Ireland to change its laws.