Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cork Women's Right to Choose Welcomes European Court Decision on Abortion

16th December 2010

Cork Women's Right to Choose Group Welcomes Momentous European Court of Human Rights Decision on Abortion

Cork Women's Right to Choose Group (CWRCG) pays tribute to the courage of the three women, known only as A, B and C, who brought their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and welcomes today’s ruling on Ireland’s failure to implement the Constitutional right to abortion in cases where a woman's life is at risk.

The 17-judge Grand Chamber ruled this morning by oral hearing that the human rights of one of the three women who took the case challenging Ireland's restrictive abortion laws had been violated because she had no “effective or accessible procedure” to access a lawful abortion in Ireland. The woman – known as Applicant 'C' – had been in remission from a rare form of cancer, and was potentially at risk of a relapse as a result of the pregnancy. Because the lack of clarity in existing medical guidelines puts doctors at risk of possible prosecution, she was unable to find a doctor willing to tell her whether her life would be at risk if she continued with the pregnancy. According to the Court, Ireland's failure to legislate for the ruling in the 1992 X Case, which provides for the right to abortion in the case of a risk to the life of the mother, constituted a breach of C's right to respect for her private life (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). As a signatory to the Convention, the Irish Government is obliged to take measures to implement the decisions made by the Court.

CWRCG spokeswoman Dr Sandra McAvoy said, "Pro-choice organizations have been calling for legislation on access to safe and legal abortion in Ireland ever since the ruling in the 1992 X case that abortion was legal in certain circumstances. Today’s ECHR ruling is a step forward in that it should force the government to do something it has resisted for 18 years: introduce legislation and provide guidelines for medical professionals.”

In relation to the other two women involved in the case (A & B), a majority of judges ruled that there had been no human rights violations. Although the Court commented on the lack of sufficient medical guidelines in relation to abortion, noting that the Irish courts were not appropriate fora for deciding whether a woman qualified for an abortion, they made no other recommendations to the Irish government for the implementation of further legislation. The judges determined that it was not the role of the European Court to rule more substantially on the right to abortion in Ireland, despite a consensus existing among the majority of Council of Europe member states allowing broader access to abortion than under Irish law.

Spokeswoman Dr. Sandra McAvoy continued, "We recognise the limitations of the Court, but are disappointed that it has not been able to clarify women’s rights in cases where states make a distinction between threats to life and those to health during pregnancy. We welcome the arguments set out in the dissenting position taken by six of the judges who pointed to the strong consensus among European countries for abortion to be permitted on broader grounds. Some 40 Council of Europe member states permit abortion to protect a woman’s health and well-being, and that failure to take account of this might mark a ‘dangerous new departure in the Court’s case law.’ We hope that, in considering legislation, Irish legislators will not close their eyes and minds to the idea that, in the twenty-first century, Irish women should have the same rights to bodily integrity, to health, and to well-being as their European sisters.”

The three women who took the case against Ireland – all of whom had been forced to go abroad to terminate their pregnancies – lodged their complaint saying that the current law in Ireland jeopardised their health and well-being. Their argument, heard in the Grand Chamber on 9th December 2009, was that Ireland's restrictive ban on abortion breached their human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. The identities of the three women, known as A, B & C, has remained confidential, although the most intimate details of their private lives were discussed publicly during the hearing.

Abortion is illegal in Ireland under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. In addition, a 1983 amendment to the Irish Constitution provides an equal right to life for both the "unborn" and the pregnant woman. As a result of the X Case ruling in 1992, abortion may be performed in Ireland where a continuation of pregnancy poses a '"real and substantial" risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the pregnant woman, which includes suicide. In reality this has neither been legislated for nor tested. The lack of legal clarity means that doctors often do not perform abortions in Ireland even in order to save a woman's life.

McAvoy notes, "The unfortunate women who are pregnant while severely ill, or as a result of sexual violence, or in cases of lethal fetal abnormalities, are forced to travel abroad if they can afford it and are able. Women who cannot travel for any variety of reasons experience extreme and possibly even life-threatening physical, financial and emotional hardship being forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy."

Since the X Case judgment, the Irish people have consistently shown increased support for access to abortion in Ireland. The most recent Abortion Referendum, which threatened to roll back the X Case judgment, was voted down by the majority of the Irish population in 2002. In 2007, an Irish Times Behaviour and Attitudes Poll found that 54% of women believe the Government should act to permit abortion. Despite this growing support, the Government continues to stall, forcing women to publicly air their private lives in the courts to gain access to services that should be safely and legally available in Ireland.

Dr. McAvoy added, "Cork Women's Right to Choose Group calls on the public and elected representatives to support this landmark ruling. We also call on the Government to swiftly implement the decision, and legislate to provide access to safe and legal abortion in Ireland. This does not mean introducing something on the lines of another 2002 Referendum designed to roll back women's rights, but legislation that protects women's human rights – including those to life and health and well-being. We need to finally make a decision that we will not tolerate the continued violation of women's health and human rights in Ireland."