The Independent (London,
U.K)) , December
After decades of controversy, could abortion become legal in Ireland?;
The big question
By DAVID MCKITTRICK
Why are we asking this now?
This week three women mounted a legal challenge at the European
Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that the Irish Republic's
strict abortion laws violated their rights. Specifically they
claim that they had to go abroad for abortions and in doing so
their health was put at risk. They say this amounted to inhumane
treatment. Two of the women are Irish while the third is a Lithuanian
living in Ireland. One was an unemployed long-term alcoholic who
lived beneath the poverty line and was trying to regain custody
of her four children when she became pregnant. Another was at
risk of an extra-uterine pregnancy while the third was recovering
from cancer and feared a relapse. The women are said to have borrowed
money from friends and a money-lender to travel abroad for their
What do the lawyers say?
A statement on their behalf said: "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 one applicant's case,
even her life." Their case is that Irish abortion law breaches
several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including
the rights to life, privacy and family life, and further represents
discrimination against women.
What do their supporters and opponents say?
The Irish Family Planning Association, which supports the case,
declared: "This is hugely significant for reproductive rights
in Ireland. The fact that Ireland's draconian laws on abortion
have been put under the spotlight is a landmark. They 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."
Pro-life campaigners responded by accusing the Family Planning
Association of "creating unnecessary fears about women's
health in an attempt to have abortion foisted on Ireland by a
How have the Irish authorities responded?
The Irish government sent a strong legal team to Strasbourg, headed
by Attorney-General Paul Gallagher, to contest the women's challenge.
He characterised the claim that their health was threatened as
"a significant attack" on the Irish health service and
the treatment, advice and support it offered, including aftercare
and post-abortion counselling.
He asserted that Irish laws - which have forbidden abortion in
almost every case for a century and a half - were based on "profound
moral values deeply embedded in Irish society." He said anti-abortion
legislation had been endorsed in three separate referendums.
Are there any abortions in Ireland at the moment?
They are extremely rare. But each year thousands of Irish women
make the journey abroad, mainly to British clinics, to have their
pregnancies terminated. Last year at least 4,600 did so, and over
the decades an estimated 140,000 have made the trip. A recent
Trinity College Dublin study concluded that almost one in 10 Irish
pregnancies ends in an English abortion clinic. This cross-channel
traffic has long been regarded as a fact of life.
Does this case have global implications?
Yes. Abortion is a highly emotive issue in many countries and
in the US, for example, it is a highly important political issue.
In some countries, such as Britain, termination is readily available
while in others the law allows it in cases such as rape or serious
risk to the woman's life or health. European court rulings are
not always automatically and fully put into effect but, representing
as it does 47 member countries of the Council of Europe, its judgments
carry substantial weight.
Why is Ireland so strongly anti-abortion?
It always has been, with the right of the unborn child to life
enshrined in the constitution of this overwhelmingly catholic
country. Over the years church authority has been in decline,
largely because of the child abuse scandals. The emergence of
a more secular and cosmopolitan society has brought a marked relaxation
in laws and general public acceptance of issues such as divorce,
homosexuality, contraception and co-habitation rather than marriage.
But abortion has always been regarded as a special case, a fraught
issue which has been a particular battlefield between liberals
and conservative elements which touches the rawest of nerves.
Why have a referendum?
Making important changes to the anti-abortion measures means changing
the constitution, and that means having them approved in a referendum.
Recent decades have been littered with bitter abortion controversies
and a series of referendum votes, some of them intensely hard-fought
and traumatic. None of the various referendum campaigns was fought
on the basis of legalising abortion, instead centring on amendments
which made often confusing adjustments to legal wording. As a
result the exact status of the law has lacked clarity, although
the general sense that the authorities frown on abortion has been
Referendums have often served to show the depth and starkness
of divisions. One in 2002, which aimed at further tightening the
law, was rejected by the narrowest of margins - 50.42 per cent
to 49.58 per cent. Outcomes such as this have caused many politicians
to steer away from an issue on which no consensus seems possible.
Have cases in the courts had an effect?
Two cases over the years have attracted great attention and caused
national soul-searching. In one a 14-year-old girl who had been
raped by a neighbour was initally prevented from travelling to
England for an abortion. This was overturned. In another a health
authority sought to prevent a 17-year-old girl, who was four months
pregnant, travelling to England to abort a foetus suffering from
a brain condition which meant it could live for only a few days
after birth. A court gave her permission to travel.
What happens if the court demands Ireland legalise abortion?
The result could be uproar. Although the Court is entirely separate
from the EU, the Irish public has recently shown itself to be
in two minds about Europe in general. During a referendum campaign
on European issues earlier this year, centring on the Treaty of
Lisbon, Irish bishops assured their flock that the Treaty "does
not undermine existing legal protections in Ireland for unborn
children." But anything that seemed like a directive from
another part of Europe on such a contentious issue would create
major controversy. Enacting such a directive would presumably
involve a referendum, and referendum campaigns are often bitter
More to the point, they have often proved unpredictable. Ireland
is a country in deep trouble at the moment, struggling to cope
with a shocking economic downturn and problems such as the church
abuse scandal. Most of its politicians would almost certainly
shy away from the abortion issue if they possibly could, preferring
to continue with the present approach, even though that would
allow drift and confusion to prevail.
Would legalising abortion benefit Ireland?
* It would show Ireland as more secular, shrugging off the dominance
of the Catholic church
* It would end the trail of pregnant women travelling to England
* It would de-criminalise abortion, gradually removing the stigma
attached to it in Ireland
* Legalising it would probably result in more abortions, putting
Ireland out of line with other Catholic countries
* Introducing abortion would fly in the face of more than a decade
of Irish tradition and culture
* Legalising it would create yet more division in a country which
already has other deep problems
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