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Human rights court to hear Irish abortion ban case

By July 14, 2009News

Irish Times 15 July, 2009

CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent

THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights has agreed to hear a challenge by three women in Ireland to the Government’s ban on abortion in a full hearing before its grand chamber of 17 judges.

The women claim the restrictive nature of Irish law on abortion jeopardises their health and their wellbeing and violates their human rights. The identities of the three will remain confidential.

The court in Strasbourg, which is separate from the EU, adjudicates on human rights issues among the 47 states of the Council of Europe. Any court decision at this level is binding on the state involved.

The court’s decision to hold a hearing before the grand chamber rather than a smaller chamber of seven judges is regarded by legal experts as a sign of the significance of the issues at stake.

The three women at the centre of the case include a woman at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb; a pregnant woman who received chemotherapy for cancer; and a woman whose children were placed in care as she was unable to cope.

Their complaints centre on four articles in the European Convention on Human Rights, including protection from “inhuman or degrading treatment” and freedom from discrimination. The case is expected to be heard later this year, although no firm date has been set.

In papers filed with the court and seen by The Irish Times , the Government has indicated it will launch a robust defence of the State’s restrictions on abortion.

It also insists the European Convention on Human Rights does not confer even a limited right to abortion and it would be “inconceivable” that member states would have agreed to this in drafting the convention. The main plank of its defence is that domestic legal remedies have not been exhausted by the women.

The women at the centre of the case – who are supported by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) – say the lack of any effective remedy at home means they have satisfied the requirement to exhaust domestic legal remedies.

In addition, they say that taking a case would have been costly, futile and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity.

Niall Behan, chief executive of the IFPA, said: “The women are looking forward to have their voices heard in the grand chambers and having their human rights vindicated.”

After several referendums in recent decades and rulings by the higher courts, abortion is illegal but may be performed if there is a substantial risk to the mother’s life, including the threat of suicide. Abortion in the case of foetal abnormalities is not provided for. The case will be watched closely by observers given a ruling by the same court in recent years that resulted in Poland being instructed to guarantee access to legal abortions.

The case has drawn the interest of a large number of groups with divergent views on abortion who have sent in observations to the court on the case.

These groups, along with the three women and the State, will be asked to send in new briefs or observations to the court over the coming weeks.