Irish Medical Times – 17 December 2009
Three women living in Ireland are challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights this week.
The women’s case was due to be heard on December 9 in Strasbourg in front of 17 judges, with the Irish Government opposing.
Abortion is criminalised under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which threatens women who ‘unlawfully procure a miscarriage’ with life imprisonment.
The case of the three women, known as A, B and C, is being heard on the grounds that Ireland’s ban on abortion has jeopardised their health and well-being and violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The women lodged a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in August 2005, contending that Ireland 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.
If successful, the action would establish a minimum degree of protection to which a woman seeking an abortion to protect her health and well-being would be entitled, under the European Convention of Human Rights.
The case is supported by the Irish Family Planning Association and reproductive health and rights bodies from around the world, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
An expert submission was accepted by the court on the needs of Irish women travelling for abortion care and the problems caused by treatment delays imposed by this legal restriction.
Dr Patricia Lohr, Medical Director of BPAS, said: “The ban means that doctors in Ireland are not routinely issued with proper training and guidance to care for patients in the extremely common situation of seeking an abortion.
“Post-abortion aftercare and follow-up is not easily available in Ireland, meaning women may not get help if they need it, or have to pretend they’ve had a miscarriage to get help,” added Dr Lohr.
According to UK statistics, a total of 4,600 women resident in Ireland travelled to England and Wales for terminations in 2008. This represents a reduction of just 86 women on the previous year.
Attorney General Paul Gallagher was expected to lead an eight-strong legal team to Strasbourg to defend the Irish ban on Wednesday.
Following the 1992 ‘X Case’, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is permitted in this country where there is a ‘real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother — including the risk of suicide — as distinct from a risk to her health. This stance was echoed to the recently revised Ethical Guide produced by the Medical Council.
Commenting on the new Guide to the Irish Catholic newspaper, Dr Berry Kiely of the Pro-Life Campaign, said she welcomed the fact that the guidelines reiterate the obligation on doctors to make ‘every effort to preserve the life of the baby’, while safeguarding necessary medical interventions in pregnancy. “This important distinction helps preserve an ethos of care for both mother and baby and shows respect for the dignity and value of each human life,” she stated.
Commenting on the current case, Dr Gill Greer, Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Feder-ation, of which the IFPA is a member, said: “The Irish Government should be protecting the reproductive rights of Irish women, instead they have consistently put barriers in the way of women. In light of this, the bravery of the three women bringing this case cannot be underestimated.
“That several thousand Irish women are forced by their own government to travel overseas to access the health care they need in Europe in 2009 is truly shocking. In this the Irish Government is not only going against the global trend to legalise and liberalise abortion laws, they are going against the majority of their own citizens whom recent opinion polls show to be broadly in favour of liberalising the law,” added Dr Greer.