Ireland’s ban on abortion was upheld this week by the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought by three Irish women backed by the Irish Family Planning Association. The women had argued that the lack of access to abortion in Ireland breached their human rights.
But the court ruled that a nation may define for itself protections afforded to life and said there is no Convention ‘right’ to abortion.
However, the European judges noted that while abortion has been allowed in Ireland on limited grounds, including safety, since 1992 ‘there was no explanation why the existing constitutional right had not been implemented to date’.
The European judges, whose human rights court predates the EU, rejected two cases (A & B) but ruled that a third woman (C) should not have been forced to travel to the UK in 2005 for an abortion because of fears that she or the unborn child would fall seriously ill. She was awarded 15,000 euros (£12,700) in damages.
The woman, a Lithuanian, had complained to the court that she could not get proper medical advice in Ireland and the country's laws had stigmatised and humiliated her and put her health at risk.
The Guardian carries a useful commentary explaining what the ruling will mean in practice, but it seems that initial reports that Ireland will be forced to change their law were overstated.
Regardless, according to a Press Association report, Mary Harney, the Irish health minister, has insisted that legislation is the preferred option to a referendum.
‘I don't want to pretend that there is an easy solution. We have to legislate, there's no doubt about that,’ she said. ‘This will take time as it is a highly sensitive and complex area.’
Ireland has already had three referenda on abortion law: 1983, affirming an outright ban; 1992, allowing women to legally travel for a termination and access information while maintaining the domestic ban; 2002, when by a margin of less than 1% of the vote the ban was upheld.
However, a series of court judgments complicated issues such as the X case of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped. She was allowed to travel because of the real and substantial risk to her life from suicide.
As it stands in Ireland therefore, a woman is allowed an abortion currently if her life is at risk from high blood pressure, an ectopic pregnancy or cervical cancer. The issue of suicide and other health complications are not set down in law.
How common is abortion to save the life of the mother?
The whole saga raises the question of how commonly abortion is really necessary to save the life of the mother.
Usually when the mother's life is at risk from an ongoing pregnancy, the baby is at a viable age and so can be saved simply by bringing forward the time of delivery. However on very rare occasions it may be necessary to terminate an early mid-trimester pregnancy (13-22 weeks) in an emergency in order to save the life of the mother.
Here we are not saying that the baby's life is less important than that of the mother, but simply (since the baby will die regardless) that it is better to intervene to save one life rather than to stand by and watch two die. Even in these situations it is often possible to deliver the baby alive in such a way that the parents can have some short time with it.
In the UK it was reported in 1992 that in the first 25 years of the operation of the Abortion Act 1967 only 0.013% of all abortions were performed 'to save the life of the mother' and it is even questionable whether many of these required such radical action. The 2009 Abortion Statistics for England and Wales do not record any on these grounds.
Ireland's leading obstetricians stated in 1992: '... we affirm that there are no medical circumstances justifying direct abortion, that is, no circumstances in which the life of the mother may only be saved by directly terminating the life of her unborn child'. (Letter to Irish Times, 1 April 1992)
This was not unsubstantiated. The National Maternity Hospital in Dublin investigated in detail the 21 maternal deaths which occurred among the 74,317 pregnancies managed in 1970-1979. The conclusion was that abortion wouldn't have saved the mother's life in a single case.
Alan Guttmacher, former President of the pro-abortion US Planned Parenthood Federation has said:
'Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save life'.
One suspects therefore that the Irish Family Planning Association has an agenda here that goes far beyond legalising abortion to save the mother's life alone.
1. Murphy J. Maternal Mortality - is there ever a case for abortion? Irish Medical Journal 1982; 75:304-306 (September)
2.Guttmacher A. Abortion - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' The Case for legalised abortion now. Diablo Press.1967