Abortion legislation now likely

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

Health Minister Mary Harney has said the Government will take legal advice on today's landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling on abortion in Ireland.

The Court found that Ireland failed to implement properly its constitutional right to an abortion in cases where the woman's life is deemed to be at risk.

It is now though likely that the Goverment, or its successor, will have to introduce legislation to clarify specifically when legal abortions can be performed in cases where there is a risk to the mother's life.

The Court said there had been no explanation as to why the existing Constitutional right to an abortion under these circumstances had to date not been implemented.

The Court today ruled that one of the three women who took cases challenging our abortion restrictions had her rights violated because she had to travel to the UK for an abortion. The woman had had a rare form of cancer.

Minister Harney said today that the Court judgement was binding on the Irish State, and the Government would have to come forward with proposals to reflect the ruling, but this would take some time due to the complexity of the issues involved.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) welcomed the European Court decision as a landmark day for women in Ireland, stating that the court had ruled that abortion, in certain circumstances, should be legalised in Ireland.

It said the ruling sent a very strong message that the State can no longer ignore the imperative to legislate for abortion in limited circumstances.

"The very considered and clear view of the European Court of Human Rights leaves no option available to the Irish State other than to legislate for abortion in cases where a woman's life is at risk," IFPA Chief Executive Niall Behan said.

The IFPA said the Court had also pointed to significant shortcomings in medical practice in relation to the protection of a woman's life, and guidelines were now needed in this area in order to provide protection for women and their doctors.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service said while the ruling may help a tiny number of women with life-threatening conditions, it was unlikely to do much to change matters for the many women from Ireland with crisis pregnancioes who must travel to access a fundamental service routinely available throughout Europe, but which they are denied.

Laboiur Party health spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan said legislation must now be introduced to provide for the right to the termination of a pregnancy in the very limited circumstances specified in the judgement, but there was no need to seek further amendments to the Constitution.

She pointed out that the European Court had simply restated a right that had already been asserted by our own Supreme Court but which the Oireachtas had failed to act upon.

Jan O'Sullivan said the absence of legislation providing for abortion in circumtances where the mother's life was at risk left those with crisis pregnancies and doctors in an impossible position.

She said Labour Party policy was that legislation should be introduced allowing abortion where there was a risk to the mother's life, including risk of suicide; where there was a fetal abnormality in which the fetus would never be born alive and where there there was a risk of significant injury to the physical health of the mother.

The Pro-Life Campaign said that the judgment does not require the Government to legalise abortion and said it in fact respected the right of Irish people to determine their own legal policy on the issue.

The campaign said maintaining the current situation whereby abortion is illegal will ensure Ireland continues to have a world-renowned safety record for mother and babies during pregnancy.

Currently, there is little legal or practical guidance for doctors on when specifically an abortion can be performed, and some are even reluctant to provide antenatal screening for major fetal abnornalities, such is the lack of clarity regarding legal practice.

The Medical Council's latest ethics guide states that abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother.

"Under current legal precedent, this exception includes where there is a clear and substantial risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide. You should undertake a full assessment of any such risk in light of the clinical research on this issue," doctors are told.

The guidelines also state that in current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving.

"In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby."

Read more on the European Court Ruling here

Read the statement from the Court here

Read more about the recently-revealed case where a Cork hospital ethics forum vetoed an abortion for a terminally-ill woman here










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