Ireland is a deeply Catholic country, known for its stringent laws restricting abortion, which essentially make it impossible for a woman to have the procedure unless her life is in danger. But now these laws are being challenged, not in Ireland itself, but in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The three plaintiffs are Irish women who have all traveled to Britain to have abortions. They say that the effective ban on abortion in Ireland violates the European Convention on Human Rights.
Almost 140,000 Irish women have traveled to Britain over the past 30 years to have abortions; currently, 6,000 women are estimated to leave the country each year for the procedure. And the illegality of abortion is deeply entrenched in Irish law, which dates from 1861. In 1983, the Irish constitution was amended to state explicitly that life begins at conception. This is the first challenge to Irish abortion law in over 15 years.
The three women, who will be identified only as A, B and C during the trial, are arguing that being forced to travel abroad for abortions endangered their “health and well-being” as safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights. The lawyers for the Irish government, however, claim that the convention does not actually endorse the right to abortion. Other Irish lawyers see a threat to Ireland’s sovereignty. Johanna Higgins, a co-founder of the Association of Catholic Lawyers of Ireland, said that “a ruling against Ireland would be an infringement of its ability” to create and decide its own laws.
“Whatever the human rights aspects are of this, abortion is illegal in Ireland because it is a criminal offence,” she said. “If I were in any country and this were to go against Ireland, I would be very concerned that the Europeans feel they can step into domestic law.”
The Irish Family Planning Association, however, was openly supportive of the challenge to the laws, describing the current restrictions on abortion as “draconian.” The three women’s lawyer, Julie Kay, said that anyone undergoing an abortion in Ireland “is legally bound to life in prison, an horrific perspective”. The women, who all experienced medical complications on their return to Ireland, said that the ban made the procedure expensive, complicated and traumatic.
The situation is complicated, because I do understand the fears of Irish citizens who feel that their ability to decide their own laws is at stake. But I think, also, that this fear is being used to hide the fact that Ireland’s abortion law is a violation of a woman’s basic right to choose. The fact that women must travel abroad to access abortions (proving that some Irish women, regardless of their religion, do not support these restrictions) at significant risk and expense is a violation of their human rights.
And there does seem to be precedent for this court to censure member states for refusing to provide abortion; in 2007, the ECHR awarded damages to a Polish woman, Alicia Tysiac, who sued the Polish government after being denied an abortion in 2000. However, the Tysiac case was different in some ways because she requested an abortion on recognized medical grounds and was still denied. So this case could be an important expansion of abortion rights, rather than simply a protection of the already incredibly limited rights that women have. I’ll be following this case, and I hope that the ENCR recognizes the right of women to have access to safe abortion, if they feel the need.