Abortion law violated woman's rights

  • Deborah Condon

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Ireland violated the rights of a cancer patient who had to travel to the UK for an abortion.

The woman, who suffered from a rare type of cancer, was one of three women who had brought the case to the European court. They all argued that their health was put at risk by having to travel abroad for an abortion.

Currently, women in Ireland are legally entitled to travel abroad for an abortion, but it is illegal here unless the woman's life is in danger. However a report earlier this year by the international organisation, Human Rights Watch, noted that there is little legal and policy guidance on when specifically an abortion might be legally performed within Ireland.

As a result, some doctors are reluctant even to provide pre-natal screening for severe foetal abnormalities, and very few, if any, women have access to legal abortions here.

The three women taking the case said they risked ill health and were stigmatised as a result of being forced to travel abroad. Aside from the woman with cancer, one of the women was at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, while the third woman was concerned that another baby would jeopardise her chances of caring for her children who had been placed in foster care.

Ruling on the issue in Strasbourg this morning, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that in the case of the woman with cancer, her human rights had indeed been violated. She had feared her cancer would relapse as a result of her pregnancy.

She was awarded €15,000 in damages.

According to the court, the only non-judicial way to determine the risk to a woman's life is via an ordinary medical consultation between the woman and her doctor. But, it said, this was ineffective.

It also found that the courts in Ireland were not appropriate for the primary determination of whether a woman qualified for an abortion and in such a case, it was unclear how Irish courts would enforce a mandatory order for a doctor to carry out an abortion.

The ruling also noted that there had been no explanation as to why the existing Constitutional right to an abortion had not been implemented to date.

The court found that the rights of the other two women who had taken the case had not been violated.

As the rulings of the court are binding, it is now likely that the Government will have to introduce official guidelines or legislation on access to abortion for women whose lives are deemed at risk.

It is understood that the judgment is now being considered by the Department of Health and the Attorney General.


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