[JURIST] The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ruled [judgment text] Thursday that Ireland failed to provide “effective and accessible procedures” to allow a Lithuanian women to assert her constitutional right to a lawful abortion [JURIST news archive]. Ireland has some of the most conservative abortion laws in Europe, prohibiting abortions except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother [NYT report]. The case came before the court [JURIST report] after three women filed suit alleging their rights were violated when they were forced to travel abroad for an abortion in 2005. Since a 1983 referendum, unborn children are afforded equal constitutional rights as mothers [Guardian report]. In 1992, the Ireland Supreme Court [official website] ruled that abortion was legal in Ireland when the mother’s life was at risk, but the ECHR noted that doctors are loathe to counsel patients on the matter because they run the risk of “criminal conviction and imprisonment” if a doctor’s medical opinion is subsequently overruled by another opinion. The ECHR stopped short of holding that abortion was an unlimited right, stating:
The Court has also previously found, citing with approval the case-law of the former Commission, that legislation regulating the interruption of pregnancy touches upon the sphere of the private life of the woman, the Court emphasising [sic] that Article 8 cannot be interpreted as meaning that pregnancy and its termination pertain uniquely to the woman’s private life as, whenever a woman is pregnant, her private life becomes closely connected with the developing foetus. The woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms invoked including those of the unborn child.
The ECHR ruling is binding on Ireland, and Health Minister Mary Harvey acknowledged that new legislation will be necessary to give effect to the ruling [Reuters report], indicating it will take some time because of its complex and sensitive nature [Irish Times report]. That burden may fall on the incoming government following elections in March. Both pro-life and pro-choice groups have claimed the ECHR ruling as a victory.
Abortion has long been a hotly contested issue domestically and internationally. On Tuesday, an Alaska Superior Court judge refused to block a law requiring parental notification for women under the age of 18 [JURIST report] to have an abortion. Last Month, Colorado voters struck down a ballot initiative [text, PDF] that would have amended the state’s constitution [text] to extend rights to fetuses and would have effectively outlawed abortion [JURIST report]. Earlier this year, reform to Spain’s abortion laws sparked widespread protests and elicited a constitutional challenge [JURIST reports] from Spain’s conservative Popular Party.