Woman A was a former drug and alcohol abuser with four children in state care who feared her unplanned pregnancy would keep her from ever regaining custody of her children. Woman B desperately feared being a single parent, and risked developing an ectopic pregnancy. And Woman C, a Lithuanian living in Ireland, faced a cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, a series of painful tests, an uncertain prognosis — and then an unintended pregnancy in a country where abortion is illegal.
All three traveled from Ireland to England to get abortions, and all three say they suffered stigma, humiliation, and medical complications they would not have had if they had been able to obtain legal abortions in Ireland.
The three women brought suit against the Irish government under the auspices of the Irish Family Planning Association, alleging that Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws put their health in danger. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that by not setting a procedure a woman can go through to get an abortion when her life is in danger, Ireland violated C’s rights. They ruled that A’s and B’s rights were not violated.
The court ordered Ireland to draft legislation clarifying women’s “equal right to life,” and awarded Woman C 15,000 euros ($20,000) in damages.
At the same time, the court refused to say that women have a right to choose abortion, and affirmed Ireland’s right to ban abortion in all cases in which the mother’s life — not just health, but life — is not in danger. A minority of judges submitted a dissent arguing Ireland’s abortion ban does violate the European Charter on Human Rights.
Ireland Unlikely To Act Soon or Make Significant Changes
While pro-choice Irish groups are considering this judgment a victory, the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean new laws will be made anytime soon.
Almost two decades ago, Irish courts ruled that laws on abortion were unclear and must provide for exceptions in anti-abortion laws when the woman’s life is in danger — even from herself. In 1992, a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after allegedly being repeatedly raped at her school was deemed suicidal, leading the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s injunction preventing her from traveling to England for an abortion. The court ruled that not only should she be allowed to travel for any reason, and not only was her life in danger, “the failure of the legislature to provide for the regulation [clarifying a woman’s constitutional "equal right to life"] has significantly added to the problem.”
After a failed attempt to amend the Constitution through a referendum, the government did not make any clarifying laws.
Irish officials are obviously not rushing into any legislation, but are instead calling for study and deliberation. There’s a general election coming up this spring, and with the Irish people bitterly divided on abortion, the parties will likely not risk taking a stand either way. (Try searching “abortion” on the website of the Irish Times or Irish Independent for a taste of the split in popular opinion, or read the comments from Irish BBC readers at the end of this article.)
Furthermore, though they are legally obligated to abide by the court’s decision, the Irish government could face pushback by Irish citizens who resent what they see as interference by an outside court. “Ireland is a sovereign nation, it’s supposed to be a sovereign nation,” says Ide Nic Mhathuna, an anti-abortion activist interviewed by BBC News. The New York Times quotes Ireland’s Cardinal Sean Brady as insisting that the ruling “does not oblige Ireland to introduce legislation authorizing abortion.”
On a controversial issue without a clear public mandate, and with a difficult-to-enforce order from the European Court that was sympathetic to the “profound moral views” of Ireland, this victory may be purely symbolic for months or even years.
Meanwhile, Women Suffer
As Ireland continues to sort out its laws on abortion, thousands of women will travel to the United Kingdom and farther abroad to obtain abortions every year. The proximity of a country where abortion is legal is a blessing for many, many women. However, there are other Irish women for whom even a short trip out of the country is impossible.
These women are often those who are already vulnerable — foreign residents like “C” who face legal difficulties to obtaining abortions in England, minors, poor women who can’t muster the resources for a trip and a procedure, women who can’t take time off work without being fired, women who must be secretive because of the severe censure of their families, disabled women who are not able to travel, and so on.
Just a few months ago, Choice Ireland reported that over 1,216 packets of abortifacient drugs were seized upon entry to Ireland after being ordered online by women trying “do-it-yourself” abortions.
Abortion access for women whose lives are endangered by their pregnancies should be a priority. That’s not the end point of reproductive rights, though — even pregnancies that don’t kill women can be physically, psychologically, socially, and financially devastating. While it’s unlikely to do so anytime soon, the Irish legislature should move toward legalizing abortion for all women throughout the country.
For more information, I recommend Human Rights Watch’s 2010 report [pdf] on the effects of Ireland’s abortion ban, and the Irish Family Planning Association’s “Ireland’s Sexual and Reproductive Health History.”
Photo credit: Brian Turner (steakpinball) vua flickr. It's reused with thanks under Creative Commons License.