Europe set to rule on Irish abortion laws

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

Image caption,
The European Court of Human Rights is set to give a judgement on the Republic's abortion laws.

The European Court of Human Rights is expected to give a judgement later in Strasbourg on the Irish Republic's abortion laws.

A case has taken by three women, one of whom is Lithuanian, who argued that the lack of abortion facilities in Ireland breached their rights.

The Republic's abortion laws are both confused and confusing.

Way back in 1983, citizens voted to put an anti-abortion amendment into the constitution giving equal rights to life to both the mother and the unborn.

But in 1992, a suicidal 14-year-old girl, known only as X who had been raped by an older neighbour, was prevented from leaving Ireland for an abortion.

There was domestic and international uproar.

The issue went to the Supreme Court which ruled that X was constitutionally entitled to a termination because she was suicidal and there was a real and substantial threat to her life as a mother.

Indeed, it appears that X had a constitutional right to an abortion right up to the moment of birth.

Decline of influence

But since then no government has introduced enacting legislation to provide legal certainty for doctors who might be prepared to carry out a termination.


Despite the decline of influence of the Catholic Church in the wake of the many child sex-abuse cases by priests there is still an anti-abortion majority in the Republic.

And politicians believe that legislation that gives the threat of suicide as a grounds for abortion would open up the floodgates for on-demand abortion.

But many legislators also suspect that as a result of the X case it's almost impossible to introduce a law that gives equal rights to both the unborn and the mother.

What's more, there is a ready-made British solution to Ireland's abortion problem.

Last year nearly 4,500 women who sought abortions in Britain gave Irish addresses.

The three women who are taking the legal challenge are among those resident in the Republic who have had British pregnancy terminations.

One of them is Lithuanian but all three want to remain anonymous.

The first is an Irish woman, a former alcoholic whose four children were put in foster care.

She claims she borrowed from a money-lender to have an abortion because she feared another child would jeopardise her chances of re-uniting her family.

The second initially feared an ectopic pregnancy but knew that wasn't the case when she travelled to Britain.

She didn't want to be a single mother.

Cancer relapse

The third was in remission from cancer and unaware that she was pregnant when she had tests.

She claims she was led to understand that her pregnancy could lead to a relapse of her cancer and couldn't get clear advice before deciding to have the termination.

All three argue that the Republic's abortion laws are unclear and they claim that the impossibility of them having an abortion in Ireland made their termination procedure unnecessarily expensive, complicated and traumatic.

They say they were humiliated and stigmatised and that their health, and in one case life, was put at risk.

There's no real expectation in government circles or in the pro-choice and pro-life pressure groups that Strasbourg will rule on the rights or wrongs of the country's abortion laws.

But it's possible that Strasbourg might criticise the 18-year delay in bringing the law and constitution into line.

If that happens, abortion as an issue could be back on the Republic's political agenda.

It's no exaggeration to say that it's almost every Irish politician's worst nightmare that the country could face a general election with the possibility of the abortion issue hovering around the campaign.