Court rules that Ireland's abortion ban breached woman's rights

Judge Jean-Paul Costa, president of the European Court of Human Rights
Judge Jean-Paul Costa, president of the European Court of Human Rights


The European Court of Human Rights ruled Dec. 16 that Ireland's abortion ban breached the rights of a woman who filed suit against Ireland after she had to leave the country in order to procure an abortion.

Pro-life groups in the U.K. decried the move and are urging Irish lawmakers to resist what they believe to be lobbying pressure to legalize abortion in the country.

The ruling comes after three women – in the case ABC vs. Ireland – filed suit against Ireland for having to travel to another country for abortions. Although the cases of the first two women were dismissed by the court, judges ruled in favor of the woman known as “C,” who had a rare form of cancer that she believed could resurface during her pregnancy.

Woman “C,” a Lithuanian who lived in Ireland, told the court that she feared that her cancer would come back if she reduced her chemotherapy treatment during her pregnancy and that the baby could be harmed if she didn't. She was unable, however, to find a doctor to substantiate these claims.  

Ireland's 1861 abortion ban was challenged in 1992 in what's known as the “X case.” The country's Supreme Court ruled that abortion was lawful in Ireland if there was a significant risk to the life of the mother as a result of her pregnancy. Yet for the last 18 years, the ruling had remained in limbo because Irish lawmakers refrained from taking any substantial action on it.

On Dec. 16, however, the European court found that because woman C's life was allegedly in danger, the situation allowed for an abortion under the 1992 provision. The court also found that her right to “private and family life”  – under Article 8 in Ireland's constitution – was violated. The country was then ordered to pay her 15,000 euros, or about $20,000.

Jim Smeaton, director for the U.K.-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, argued against the ruling as a further step in the push to legalize abortion in Ireland.

“The Irish Constitution does not confer any right to abortion, nor can the right to life of unborn children in any way be held to be in competition with the right to life of their mothers,” he said. “If implemented in law, this judgment would legalize abortion in a wide range of circumstances.”

Smeaton added that the case “was never about helping women faced with a crisis pregnancy. It was instigated by the international abortion lobby, which has the ultimate aim of forcing governments across the globe to recognize access to abortion as a legal right.”

Despite the decision being described as a landmark ruling, questions remain about how Irish lawmakers will have to respond to the court's Dec. 16 decision.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Joseph Meaney, director of International Coordination for Human Life International told Vatican Radio, saying that the ruling “doesn’t change an extraordinary amount.”

Although the decision is advancing “a right to abortion in the case of the life of the mother,” Meaney said it also clearly states that “countries have the right to make their own laws with regard to abortion on demand, with regard to abortion for social reasons, with regard to 99 percent of abortion cases.”