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Ireland's abortion ban violates rights: EU court

Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.
Carmel Stewart, a lawyer of the three women victims of restrictions on abortion in Ireland, reads the judgment from the European Court of Human Rights on Thursday in Strasbourg, France. ((Christian Lutz/Associated Press))

Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday.

The judgment from the court in Strasbourg, France, also harshly criticized Ireland's long inaction on the issue.

It will put Ireland under pressure to draft a law extending limited abortion rights to women whose pregnancies represent a potentially fatal threat to their own health.

Ireland has resisted taking that step despite a 1992 judgment from the Irish Supreme Court declaring that abortions should be considered legal in Ireland in all cases where the woman's life would be endangered by continued pregnancy, including through threats to commit suicide. The delay has left the abortion rights of thousands of women in legal limbo, obliging many to travel overseas for the procedure.

The Strasbourg judges said Ireland was wrong to keep the legal situation unclear for women who received advice from doctors that their pregnancy could complicate their own medical problems.

They ruled in favour of one of three litigants who sued Ireland for allegedly failing to protect their rights to health and well-being under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The successful litigant is a Lithuanian woman living in Ireland who, at the time of her pregnancy, was successfully battling cancer through chemotherapy and feared that her pregnancy would trigger a relapse of the disease. She testified that her doctors agreed, but none was willing to authorize an abortion.

She had to travel to England for an abortion. The European judges ruled she should have received an abortion in Ireland as a matter of medical urgency.

They ruled against two other litigants:

  • A woman who didn't want to become a single mother.
  • A woman who had four other children placed in state care.

In both cases, the judges said they had failed to demonstrate that their pregnancies represented a risk to their health.

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