ECHR abortion ruling puts pressure on Irish law
The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that the human rights of a woman from Ireland had been violated when she was forced to travel to the UK to obtain an abortion in its long awaited decision in the ‘ABC’ case. This is a legally binding judgement and the Irish government will now be obliged to review and amend its abortion legislation.
So, a victory for Irish women, the pro-choice movement and for common sense, then? Well, to a certain extent it is. The case has put Ireland’s outdated abortion laws under the international media spotlight; it has provided legal redress, and €15,000 compensation, to the woman involved, ‘C’, who became pregnant while suffering from a rare form of cancer and who feared for her own and her child’s life if she continued with the pregnancy; and it will force the Irish government at the very least to clarify the circumstances in which abortion can be carried out legally in the Republic of Ireland.
But the case also demonstrates just how far Ireland has to go before it fully recognises the injustice and hardship caused by its draconian abortion laws, which are among the most restrictive in Europe.
The procedure remains illegal in the Republic in almost all circumstances. Technically there is a right to access termination where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman from carrying a baby to term. In practice, the lack of clarity over when this rule applies, and the ever-present risk of criminal prosecution faced by the woman seeking termination and the doctor advising her, means that the right cannot be exercised with any degree of confidence. It is this issue which the Irish government will now be forced to address.
But there are far wider human rights violations at stake here: the two other complainants in the ECHR case are in fact more representative of the broader injustice faced by Irish woman seeking to access abortion services.
The first woman, ‘A’, is a recovering alcoholic whose children had been taken into care and who felt that having another child would jeopardise her chances of reuniting her family. She borrowed from a money-lender to cover the cost of travelling to a private clinic in London. Woman ‘B’ was unmarried and was not prepared to become a single parent.
The court rejected the claims of both these women that having to travel abroad to access abortion had violated their human rights. And in all three cases it rejected their claims that the psychological and physical burden they suffered as a result had constituted inhuman or degrading treatment.
Indeed the court explicitly endorsed the prohibition of abortion in Ireland as based on the “profound moral values of the Irish people in respect of the right to life of the unborn” and “struck a fair balance between the right of the …applicants to respect of their private lives and the rights invoked on behalf of the unborn”.
Here’s the reality of the situation: last year around 4,500 women travelled to England and Wales from the Republic of Ireland seeking abortions in private clinics. Each of them had to find between €400 and €1500 for the cost of the termination alone. When the cost of flights, accommodation, time off work and childcare are factored in, many, like Woman ‘A’, are forced to turn to money lenders to meet the expense.
Beyond this, the stigma around abortion in Ireland, where the Church remains a major force in public life, is so great that many women are unable to tell those closest to them what they are going through.
The extreme circumstances faced by Woman ‘C’ were undoubtedly traumatic. But the vast majority of Irish women seeking abortion face less sensational but equally distressing situations. These ‘run-of-the-mill’ cases never make the headlines: women with families who simply can’t afford another child, young women trying to finish their education; issues of job loss, divorce, bereavement and caring responsibilities that everyone will experience at some point in their lives, but which are compounded by unplanned pregnancy, and made catastrophic by the cost, distress and secrecy involved in having to travel abroad to access termination.
So far the Irish government’s response to the court ruling has been lukewarm. Irish Health Minister Mary Harney has indicated there will be no legislative change before the General Election in February or March, and was ‘reassured’ that the Irish constitutional position had been protected. Taoseach Brian Cowan observed yesterday, “I don’t think we can jump to any quick conclusion”.
The Irish government has spent almost two decades failing to clarify the grounds for legal abortion after the Supreme Court advised it to do so in 1992, there seems little danger of a rush to judgement. So, for the time being Ireland will continue to export its ‘abortion problem’ to the UK and claim its stance reflects the ‘moral values’ of its people.
Women from the Republic of Ireland form the vast majority of those who come to England and Wales seeking abortions. But guess who’s at No. 2 on the list? Northern Ireland.
Last year, 1,123 women from Northern Ireland made the same trek as their counterparts from the Republic to private clinics on the mainland, facing the same financial and emotional costs and the same stigma and secrecy.
Abortion in Northern Ireland is almost as restricted as it is south of the border, and its regulations similarly opaque. The only difference is that under the 1967 Abortion Act, the procedure is legal – and therefore safe – in the rest of the UK. Northern Irish women are British citizens and they are being forced to pay for a procedure which is legally available to women elsewhere in the UK free of charge.
Abortion law in the North is even governed by the same legislation as in the Republic: the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. And that’s something that should make politicians in Belfast – and Westminster – take notice. As Audrey Simpson, Director of FPA Northern Ireland said yesterday:
“This landmark judgement sends a very strong message to the Northern Ireland Assembly that the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is inadequate as well, and needs to be changed to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is no longer the case of ‘if’ the law should be changed, but rather ‘when’.”