Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Irish abortion ban challenged in European Court

The Republic of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws are facing a landmark legal challenge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In a case being watched closely in other Catholic countries, three women—known only as A, B and C, who were forced to travel to England for terminations—claim that the Irish abortion ban jeopardised their health and well-being in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a statement on their behalf, the court heard, “All three women complain that the impossibility for them to have an abortion in Ireland made the procedure unnecessarily expensive, complicated and traumatic. In particular, that restriction stigmatised and humiliated them and risked damaging their health and, in the third applicant’s case, even her life.”

The case, which is being supported by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, contends that the Republic’s abortion laws breach several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to life, to privacy and family life, and the bans on inhuman and degrading treatment and on discrimination.

In Ireland, abortion is criminalised under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which threatens women who ‘unlawfully procure a miscarriage’ with life imprisonment. Lawyers for the three women dismiss as bogus government claims that terminations are allowed in cases where women’s lives are at risk.  The case highlights the absence of legal provision for abortion where there is risk to a woman’s health, where she has become pregnant through rape or incest, and in cases involving foetal abnormality. The IFPA points out that, in reality, the Irish abortion ban has resulted in at least 138,000 women being forced to travel abroad, mainly to England, to access safe abortion services since 1980.

“Today is a hugely significant day for reproductive rights in Ireland. The fact that Ireland’s draconian laws on abortion have been put under the spotlight is a landmark for women living in Ireland,” said the IFPA, of the 9th December hearing. “Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion are totally out of step with those of its European neighbours… Women and girls do not give up their human rights when they become pregnant.”

The challenge, which took four years to be heard in Strasbourg, would, if successful, 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 on Human Rights. No ruling is expected on the case until next year.

Responding to the case Abortion Rights said, “We strongly support the current challenge to the Republic of Ireland’s ban on abortion. Each year thousands of women from Ireland have to leave their homes and travel overseas to access safe, legal abortion, at great financial and emotional cost to themselves, and often at risk to their physical health. The vast majority of European countries provide for abortion to protect women’s health. We hope that the attention this case brings will encourage the Irish government to change its laws in order to respect the fundamental human rights of its citizens and protect the health and well-being of Irish women, by providing them with the access to safe, legal abortion that they deserve.”