The Guardian (UK), May 2, 2007
By Owen Bowcott
A pregnant 17-year-old in state care in Ireland began a court battle yesterday to be allowed to travel to England for an abortion, as the country's failure to resolve the ambiguities in its abortion laws threatened to erupt into a constitutional crisis.
The teenager, who is four months into the pregnancy, is seeking an abortion because the baby has got a rare brain condition and will not live more than three days after birth, she has been told.
Identified only as Miss D, the teenager has been in the care of Ireland's health service executive (HSE), since February.
The government agency has overruled her wish for an abortion in Britain. The young woman's father is absent and her mother's behaviour had led to earlier court proceedings.
Abortion in this predominantly Catholic country, where the influence of the church has gradually weakened, remains illegal, with the ban on it written into the constitution. Abortions can only be performed if there is a substantial risk to the mother's life, which includes the threat of suicide. The law does not permit abortion on grounds of foetal abnormality.
Most women seeking an abortion go to England for the operation. Successive complex cases have led to hearings at the European court of human rights and several divisive national referenda.
Since 2002, three teenagers in care have been allowed to go abroad for terminations.
But the republic's abortion laws have never been fully clarified. As long ago as 1992, a supreme court judge warned that the failure to introduce proper legislation was "inexcusable".
Last year a 45-year-old woman lost a case in Europe in which she said she had been denied her human rights because she could not have an abortion on grounds of foetal abnormality. The court dismissed her application saying the issue had not yet been dealt with by the Irish courts.
This latest case, emerging in the opening days of a general election campaign, has prompted fresh calls for constitutional reform.
Mary Muldowney, of the Alliance for Choice, which campaigns for safe, free, legal abortion in Ireland, has accused the government of hypocrisy. "The HSE must retract their callous approach to [Miss] D's tragic case and facilitate her choice for a termination," Ms Muldowney said. "She cannot afford any further delay and the Irish people will not thank the HSE or the government for again brutalising a young woman in their name."
The application on behalf of the young woman has been brought by her boyfriend, who is supporting her. The teenager, from the Leinster region, had not considered having an abortion until told about the foetus's medical condition.
Doctors say the baby suffers from anencephaly, a condition where the front part of the brain is missing. The condition is detected through blood screening. Such children are normally blind, deaf, and unconscious. The high court in Dublin has been told that life expectancy would be somewhere between several hours and, at the maximum, three days.
Miss D's lawyers are seeking the removal of the restrictions on her right to leave Ireland and the rescinding of a request sent to the Gardai to prevent her travelling abroad.
The legal challenge will be heard at Dublin's Four Courts tomorrow. Lawyers for the teenager said it was a matter of "great importance" that the case be heard as speedily as possible.
The court heard that the young woman was not suicidal but had not wanted to have an abortion before hearing about her baby's condition.
Irish politicians yesterday expressed sympathy for the predicament of the teenager. Enda Kenny, the leader of the main opposition party, Fine Gael, described it as a "very serious and very tragic case". Pat Rabbitte, the leader of the opposition Labour party, said he hoped that the teenager would be allowed to travel abroad for a termination.
Ireland's constitution was altered by national referendum in 1983 to give unborn children equal rights to life as mothers. In 1992, a teenager aged 14, who became pregnant through being raped, was refused permission to travel abroad in order to get an abortion. The case eventually went to the supreme court in Ireland where, because she was considered to be at risk of suicide, the decision was finally made to allow her to leave the republic for the operation. Since 1992, four governments have refused to introduce legislation confirming the supreme court's judgment, and instead tried to get public support for a more restricted move. During 2002, a constitutional amendment which was designed to remove the threat of suicide as legal grounds for an abortion was narrowly defeated in a national referendum.
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