Q&A: Ireland's abortion ruling

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The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of one of three women who sought terminations in Britain. What are the facts of the case?

What happened?

Three women who travelled from the Irish Republic to the UK in 2005 to have abortions claimed that their human rights had been infringed by having to do so. They said the restrictions on abortion in Ireland effectively stigmatised and humiliated them, risked damaging their health and, in the third applicant's case, even her life. The court decided that the human rights of this third woman had been breached. It said that her treatment violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects her right to a private and family life. The court ruled that the other two women had failed to demonstrate that their pregnancies represented a risk to their health.

What are the facts of the successful case?

Woman C - a Lithuanian resident in Ireland - was in remission from a rare form of cancer when she unintentionally became pregnant. She said neither her GP nor the medical practitioners she visited gave her enough information about the impact of the pregnancy on her health and life, and of the impact of cancer tests that she had had on the foetus. Given the uncertainty, she travelled to England for an abortion. But, unable to find a clinic willing to provide the drugs to induce an abortion as she was a non-resident, she alleged she had to wait eight more weeks to have a surgical abortion. On returning to Ireland, she suffered the complications of an incomplete abortion. She says that when she returned to her GP several months later, the doctor made no reference to the fact that she was no longer pregnant.

What did the court rule?

The Court found that Woman C's right to respect for her private life was breached because there was a lack of an effective procedure in the Irish Republic for her to determine her right to an abortion. The court agreed with Woman C that the country's legal situation constituted a significant "chilling factor" for both women and doctors.

Ireland's Constitution allows for an abortion when a woman's life is at risk, but this is not fully reflected in the law. The court said women seeking information and doctors providing it, could face criminal proceedings if an initial opinion that a woman may entitled to an abortion was later disputed.

What does Irish law say?

Ireland has had strict laws on abortion for more than 100 years. The country's Constitution has been amended to allow for an abortion when a woman's life is at risk - but the issue is very complex.

In 1992, for example, the country's Supreme Court upheld the right of a 14-year-old girl, who had been raped and was threatening to commit suicide, to have an abortion. However, the court's ruling was never officially made into law, which is likely to have put some doctors in a difficult position.

The key article of the Constitution covering abortion is 40.3, which reads:

  • "The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen."
  • "The State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen."
  • "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."
  • "This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state."
  • "This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state."

How will the European court's ruling affect the situation in Ireland?

The Irish government says it is going to consider carefully the court's ruling.

Lorenzo Zucca, an expert in European human rights at King's College London told the BBC that while Ireland would be unwilling to rush into the complex and lengthy procedure of changing its Constitution, it may have to in order to determine exactly what constitutes a life-threatening condition for a pregnant woman seeking an abortion.

He said that given the ruling was not a particularly strong victory, it was unlikely that the criminal law would be altered.

"As the case stands now I don't think it calls for a change in criminal law, it was a qualified judgement," he said.

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