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Abortion in Ireland: Legal Timeline

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2014

  • September 2014: A Guidance Document for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 is published. The guidance document appears to be more restrictive than the Act. For example, the document states:  "The purpose of this Act is to restate the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland while regulating access to lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with the X case and the judgment in the European Court of Human Right in the A, B and C v Ireland case." This language is not part of the Act.
  • August 2014: Concerns are raised about the adequacy of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 after a vulnerable woman, known as Ms Y, sought a termination of her pregnancy on grounds of suicide under the 2013 Act but was subsequently delivered of her baby by caesarean section.
  • July 2014: During the fourth period review of the State under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Human Rights Committee criticised Ireland's abortion laws and urged legislative and constitutional change to bring these laws in line with human rights standards.

The UN body expressed concern at restrictive provisions of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act and criticised the discriminatory impact of Irish abortion law. The State admitted that only those women and girls with resources can exercise their right to travel to another country for an abortion. The State also admitted that the public has never been given the opportunity to vote for less restrictive laws on abortion.

In his concluding remarks, Committee Chair and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley stated that “recognition of the primary right to life of the woman, who is an existing human being, has to prevail over that of the unborn child” and expressed disbelief in a system where “priority would be given to the latter rather than the former.” Mr Rodley also described women in Ireland pregnant as a result of rape and denied access to an abortion as "treated as vessels and nothing more”.

The Committee's Concluding Observations called on the State to “revise its legislation on abortion, including its Constitution, to provide for additional exceptions in cases of rape, incest, serious risk to the health of the mother, or fatal foetal abnormality.”

The Act provides that two doctors must confirm that there is a physical threat to the life of the pregnant woman. In medical emergencies, however, one doctor may make the decision.

Where the threat arises because of risk of suicide, three doctors—a woman's obstetrician and two psychiatrists—must agree that her life is at risk.

The Act includes a review procedure to cover situations where there is disagreement as to whether a risk to life exists. The pregnant woman has a right to address the review committee.

A medical practitioner, nurse or midwife who has a conscientious objection must make arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned to another practitioner. The right to conscientious objection does not override the duty to provide care in emergency cases.

The Act states that “it shall be an offence to intentionally destroy unborn human life”. A person found guilty is liable to a maximum 14-year sentence.

The Act defines “unborn” as “commencing after implantation in the womb of a woman”.

Regulations are introduced by ministerial order in relation to certification of procedures under the Act and their notification to the Minister for Health, as well as application for a review of a decision that a particular case does not fall within the Act.

2013

  • November 2013: The United Nations Committee Against Torture and Human Rights Committee highlight Ireland’s abortion law in advance of their reviews of the State’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

  • July 2013: President Michael D. Higgins signs the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act into law. The Act is intended to implement the 1992 judgment of the Supreme Court in the X case and the 2010 European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v Ireland and provide for lawful access to abortion where a pregnant woman’s life is risk. 25 public hospitals are listed as appropriate institutions where a termination can be carried out.

  • May 2013: On May 17, 20 and 21 the Oireachtas Health Committee holds a second series of public hearings into the Heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013—i.e. the general scheme of the legislation that is intended to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B and C v Ireland. Experts from the medical, psychiatric, legal and medical ethics fields are heard.

  • January 2013: On January 08, 09 and 10 the Oireachtas Health Committee holds public hearings into the report of the expert group established to advise the Government on the implementation of A, B and C v Ireland. Experts from the medical and legal fields and representatives of advocacy organisations are heard.

2012

  • December 2012: The Government announces plans to introduce a combination of legislation and guidelines to implement the judgment in the case of A, B and C v Ireland

  • December 2012: The Council of Europe issues its most strongly worded response to the Irish Government in relation to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v Ireland and urges the Government to expedite the implementation of the judgment (click for report).

  • November 2012: The report of the expert group, appointed by the Government to advise on options for the implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the case of A, B and C v Ireland, is published. The report is limited to the narrow grounds of the Court’s finding of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The report makes recommendations in relation to the implementation of the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in the X case. The expert group report makes clear that such implementation requires that appropriate and accessible services be put in place. The report expresses doubt that any option short of legislation will give effect to the right to an abortion where there is risk to a woman’s life to the satisfaction of the European Court of Human Rights. 

  • November 2012: A Private Members Bill to implement the X case is put before the Dáil. The Bill is rejected (101 TDs vote against the Bill, and 27 vote in favour).

  • April 2012: A Private Members Bill to implement the X case is put before the Dáil. The Bill is rejected (110 TDs vote against the Bill, and 20 vote in favour).

  • March 2012: The Committee of Ministers of Europe, the body that monitors the implementation of rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, expresses concern at the Government's delay in implementing the judgment in A, B and C v Ireland and at the lack of any interim measures in place to ensure that a woman in the position of Applicant C would have access to the right to a termination of her pregnancy (click for report).

  • January 2012: The Government submits an Action Report to the Council of Europe outlining the terms of reference for the expert group to advise on implementation of A, B and C v Ireland and listing its members. The Action Report states that the expert group will complete its report within six months.

2011

  • September 2011: the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the body that monitors the implementation of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, underlines the importance of putting in place substantive measures to implement the Court's judgment in A, B and C v Ireland (click for report). 

  • June 2011: the Government submits an Action Plan to the Council of Europe stating that an expert group will be established to advise on the implementation of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B and C v Ireland.

2010

  • In the case of A, B and C v Ireland, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously rules that Ireland's failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion when a woman's life is at risk violates Applicants C's rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court also ruled that the three women challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion did not have an effective remedy available to them under the Irish legal system in theory or in practice. The three women lodged their complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in August 2005 and an oral hearing of the case was heard before the Grand Chamber of 17 Judges on December 9, 2009. The women, known as A, B and C to protect their confidentiality, argued that Ireland has breached their human rights under Articles 2 (Right to Life), 3 (Prohibition of Torture), 8 (Right to Respect for Family and Private Life) and 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

2007

  • A 17-year-old known as Miss D, who is in the care of the State, discovers she has an anencephalic pregnancy and wishes to terminate the pregnancy. Although it seems that the Health Services Executive (HSE) try “to shoehorn her case into the grounds set out in the X case”, Miss D refuses to say she is suicidal. The Health Service Executive writes to the Gardaí to request that they arrest Miss D if she attempts to leave the country. The HSE also requests that the Passport Office refuse to issue her with a passport. Miss D goes to High Court to force the Health Service Executive to allow her to travel to obtain an abortion. In the High Court Mr Justice McKechnie rules that she has a right to travel. 

2006

  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rules D v Ireland inadmissible because the case did not go through the Irish Courts. The Irish Government relies on the argument that in the Applicant's particular circumstances, she could have been legally entitled to an abortion in Ireland should she have gone through the Irish courts system. The Applicant, known as D, argued that Ireland's ban on abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities violated Articles 1, 3, 8, 20, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

2002

  • Irish voters reject the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2002 which would remove the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion and increase the penalties for helping a woman have an abortion. Voter turn out is 42.89% of total electorate. 50.42% vote against. 49.58% vote in favour.

2001

  • The Department of Health and Children establishes the Crisis Pregnancy Agency to prepare and implement a strategy to address the issue of crisis pregnancy in Ireland as recommended by the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution's Fifth Progress Report on Abortion.

The strategy is to provide for:

- a reduction in the number of crisis pregnancies by the provision of education, advice and contraceptive services;
- a reduction in the number of women with crisis pregnancies who opt for abortion by offering services and supports which make other options more attractive;
- the provision of counselling and medical services after crisis pregnancy.

2000

  • The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Deputy Brian Lenihan, publishes its Fifth Progress Report: Abortion. The 700 page report is a political assessment of the issues raised in the Green Paper on Abortion, submissions received and hearings conducted. The views of women who have had abortions are not heard. The Committee fails to reach a political consensus on the substantive legal issues of abortion but agrees on a strategy to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies. The report further recommends the establishment of a dedicated agency under the Department of Health and Children to implement the strategy. The report is sent to a Cabinet Subcommittee chaired by the Minister for Health and Children Michael Martin for consideration.

1999

  • The Cabinet Committee chaired by Brian Cowen, Minister for Health and Children, publishes a Green Paper on Abortion prepared by an Interdepartmental Working Group. The Green Paper aims to set out the issues surrounding abortion, provide a brief analysis and to consider possible options available. It is a discussion document and not a policy document.

1997

  • A 13 year old girl, known as Miss C, is raped and becomes pregnant. The Eastern Health Board takes C into its care and in accordance with the girl's wishes, obtains orders from the District Court to take C abroad for an abortion. C's parents challenge these orders in the High Court case A and B v Eastern Health Board. District Court Judge Mary Fahy and Mr Justice Geoghegan rule that as Miss C is likely to take her own life if forced to continue with the pregnancy, she is entitled to an abortion in Ireland by virtue of the Supreme Court judgment in the 1992 X Case.

1996

  • The Constitution Review Group recommends the introduction of legislation covering matters such as the definition of "unborn", protection for appropriate medical intervention, certification of "real and substantial risk to the life of the mother" and a time limit on lawful abortion.

1995

  • The Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995 is enacted. The Act allows doctors, advisory agencies and individual counsellors to give information on abortions services abroad should a woman request it. However, the Act requires any information on abortion services be provided along with information on parenting and adoption and may only be given the context of one to one counselling. The Act also prohibits service providers (including doctors) from making an appointment for a termination abroad on behalf of their client. Advisory agencies, doctors and counsellors that do not provide information on abortion services abroad but do engage in pregnancy counselling are not subject to the provisions of the Act.

1992

  • As a result of the X case judgment and the issues relating to travelling and information on abortion, the Government puts forward three possible amendments to the Constitution in a referendum.

The three amendments include:
- The freedom to travel outside the State for an abortion - passed
- The freedom to obtain or make available information on abortion services outside the State, subject to conditions - passed
- To roll back the X Case judgment in order to remove suicide as a grounds for abortion in Ireland - rejected

  • In the case of Open Door and Well Woman v Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights rules that Ireland violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression. The Court finds that the Irish Courts' injunction against Open Door and Well Woman from receiving or imparting information on abortion services legally available in other countries is disproportionate and created a risk to the health of women seeking abortions outside the State.

  • The Supreme Court rules in Attorney General v X that a 14 year old girl, known as X, pregnant as a result of rape, faces a real and substantial risk to her life due to threat of suicide and this threat can only be averted by the termination of her pregnancy. Therefore, X is entitled to an abortion in Ireland under the provision of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution that requires the State to have "due regard to the equal right to life of the mother".

    The Court does not consider that abortion can be permitted only where the risk is of immediate or inevitable death of the pregnant woman, as this would insufficiently protect her right to life.

    The law is now clear that termination of pregnancy should be considered a medical treatment whether the risk to the life of a pregnant woman arises on physical or mental health grounds. Risk to life does not have to be a virtual certainty. But risk to physical or mental health alone is not sufficient. 

1991

  • Upon the request of the Irish High Court in relation to the 1989 case to prevent student groups distributing information on abortion services in the UK, the European Court of Justice rules in SPUC v Grogan that abortion could constitute a service under the Treaty of Rome (Treaty of the European Economic Community) and therefore a Member State could not prohibit the distribution of information by agencies having a commercial relationship with foreign abortion clinics.

However, the Court also rules that since the student groups have no direct links with abortion services outside of Ireland, they cannot claim protection of European Community law.

1983

  • Referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is passed after a bitterly contested campaign. 53.67% of the electorate voted with 841,233 votes in favour and 416,136 against. Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution is inserted to read: "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."

1861

  • Offences Against the Person Act 1861 criminalises women who "procure a miscarriage". The Act also makes it a crime to assist a woman to "procure a miscarriage". The punishment in both cases is life imprisonment. The Act also criminalises anyone who knowingly supplies the means to “procure a miscarriage”. These criminal laws remain on the Irish Statute books and are interpreted to criminalise abortion in all circumstances. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution and court cases have interpreted further the dimensions of abortion, however, the 1861 Act remains the basis of criminal law on abortion in Ireland.

 

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