European Court of Human Rights Rules that Ireland Abortion Ban Violates Human Rights, But Doesn't Go Far Enough

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(PRESS RELEASE) Today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland's ban on abortion violated the human rights of a woman who was forced to travel out of the country to obtain an abortion to protect her life. Currently, Ireland only allows abortion when a woman's life is in danger. Three women who were forced to travel outside of Ireland for an abortion challenged the law in 2005, arguing that the law jeopardized their health. The three women used pseudonyms—Applicants A, B, and C—in the case ABC v. Ireland. The court found that Ireland violated the right to private life of Applicant C, a woman who had a rare form of cancer and feared that it might relapse as a result of her pregnancy. The court also asserted that there were significant shortcomings in Irish medical practice to protect a woman's life and that the state must legislate for abortion services when a woman's life is in danger.

"While today's ruling is an extremely important step towards increasing women's access to abortion in Ireland, it still falls incredibly short in terms of protecting women's health," said Christina Zampas, senior regional manager and legal adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This ruling fails to take into account the humiliation and the financial and practical difficulties that women endure to travel outside the country to get an abortion to protect their own health. No one should have to travel outside their own country to exercise their human rights."

Despite the Court acknowledging that Ireland's restrictive abortion law is out of line with the rest of Europe and had a negative impact on applicants A and B, it still deferred to Ireland to determine on what grounds a woman should be lawfully entitled to an abortion, including circumstances in which her health is in danger. The Court's opinion suggests that because Irish law allows women to travel outside the country to get an abortion and that women can get information on where to get abortions abroad the law sufficiently protects women's health.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the University of Toronto International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Programme submitted a joint friend-of-the-court brief to the court, supporting the challenge to the law. As an international human rights advocacy organization, the Center argued that Ireland's abortion law is inconsistent with legal standards for abortion regulations in international human rights law and in comparison to other countries in Europe. For example, all but four countries in the 47-member Council of Europe, including Ireland, allow a woman to have an abortion to protect her health. As noted in the dissenting opinion, today's decision is the first time the Court has disregarded the existence of a European consensus on the basis of "profound moral views."

Applicants A, B and C were forced to travel to England to obtain an abortion, each under different circumstances. Applicant A was living in poverty when she became pregnant unintentionally. Her children were in the care of the state, but she was in the process of regaining custody. She believed another child would jeopardize the successful unification of her existing family. Applicant B learned that she was at risk of an ectopic pregnancy after learning that she was pregnant. Because it was a life-threatening condition, she sought an abortion. Applicant C had undergone chemotherapy for three years to treat cancer. When the cancer went into remission, she unintentionally became pregnant. Unaware of the pregnancy at that time, she underwent a number of tests to determine her current state of health. The tests were inadvisable during pregnancy. But when she learned that she was pregnant, she could not find a doctor willing to make a determination as to whether her life would be at risk if she continued the pregnancy to term or how the fetus might have been affected by the tests. She decided to have an abortion.