Irish Times – 10 December 2009
THE CHALLENGE: THREE WOMEN were subjected to indignity, stigmatisation and ill-health as a result of being forced to travel abroad for their abortions, the European Court of Human Rights heard yesterday.
Legal representatives for the women – who are supported by the Irish Family Planning Association – said their clients were unable to challenge the laws in Ireland because there were no effective domestic legal remedies available to them.
Addressing the court, counsel for the women Julie Kay said taking a case in the Irish courts would have been “costly, futile and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity”.
Both the State and legal representative for the women outlined their cases before a panel of 17 judges in the court’s grand chamber. High Court judge Mrs Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan was among the judges on the panel.
Ms Kay contested the Government’s claim that abortion was available in Ireland in the case where a mother’s life was at risk.
While this was provided for following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1992 “X” case, she said the Government had failed to produce any legislation for doctors or medical practitioners on this issue.
As a result, doctors were not willing to intervene for fear of potential imprisonment or losing their medical qualifications if the termination was later found to be unlawful or unnecessary. Ms Kay added: “In fact, there are no relevant statistics to show that any life-saving abortions have been carried out since the X case.” Under the 1861 Offences Against the State Act, it remains a criminal offence to “unlawfully procure a miscarriage”.
On the issue of whether the facts of their case were reliable, Ms Kay said their statements had been accepted by the court and pointed out that the State had not sought any additional information in relation to the three women’s cases.
Taking issue with the Government’s insistence that Ireland’s abortion laws were safeguarded as a result of protocols attached to Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, Ms Kay said this was irrelevant and they could not be used as an excuse to affect women’s rights.
Other grounds on which the women’s human rights were violated included through financial discrimination, the court heard.
Ms Kay said some of the women had to borrow money from friends or money lenders to travel abroad, contravening protections under the European Convention.
The women also faced sexual discrimination through the Government’s failure to provide access to vital healthcare which is only needed by women, Ms Kay said. The court also heard that Ireland’s laws were out of step with its European neighbours, given that 44 out of 47 European countries now provide for abortion to protect women’s health and wellbeing.
Ms Kay, along with senior counsel Carmel Stewart, represented the women in court yesterday. Speaking after the hearing, Niall Behan, of the Irish Family Planning Association, said that he was confident the court’s judgment would “establish a minimum degree of protection to which a woman seeking an abortion to protect her health and wellbeing would be entitled”.
Also yesterday, a small group of anti-abortion campaigners from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children gathered outside the court, holding a prayer vigil while the case was being heard. They said a positive ruling could have a similar effect to the landmark Roe vs Wade case in the US.