When Socialist Party representative Clare Daly stood
up in the Irish parliament last week to propose a motion that would legalize
abortion in Ireland, there was little reaction. No one seriously expects the
legislation to proceed, and when it comes to a vote on April 19 the government
is expected to use its majority in parliament to crush the motion. So far only
six of 166 legislators have promised they will support the move. But that won’t
signal the end of the latest attempt to overturn the country’s ban on abortion.
Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus remain the only countries in Europe where abortion
Pro-life activists have accused the bill’s supporters
of muddying the waters by creating the false impression that are circumstances in
which a direct abortion is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. The
preamble to the proposed legislation states that the plan is “to provide for
termination of pregnancy where a real and substantial risk to the life of the
pregnant woman exists; to make provision for the prevention of any curtailment,
hindrance, or preclusion of such treatment that may arise as a result of the
pregnancy of the woman; and to provide for related matters.”
However, Dr. Ruth Cullen, a spokeswoman for the
Pro-Life Campaign, insists that this description “falsely creates the
impression that women in Ireland are being denied necessary medical treatments
in pregnancy because of the absence of abortion here.”
“The reality is that Ireland ranks as one of the
safest countries in the world for pregnant women, safer than places like
Britain or Holland where abortion is available on demand,” said Dr. Cullen.
Obstetricians can be justifiably proud of Ireland’s
record on maternal mortality. When six countries (Holland, Germany, Denmark,
Slovenia, Norway, and Spain) led a campaign at the United Nations to force
Ireland to introduce abortion last year, Caroline Simonsa Dublin-based lawyerwas quick to point out that Ireland has “a
much better record of safeguarding the lives of women in pregnancy than any of
the six countries that challenged our laws on abortion.”
The latest UN study on maternal mortality, published
in 2010, shows that out of 172 countries for which estimates are given, Ireland
remains a world leader in safety for pregnant women.
The current debate on abortion has been precipitated
by the government’s recent decision to appoint an “expert group” on abortion to
advise on the implementation of a 2010 ruling of the European Court of Human
Rights (ECHR), which requires Ireland to clarify the legal status of abortion
in the country.
The court rejected the cases of two women who claimed
their rights were violated by Ireland’s anti-abortion laws. However, the court
also ruled that a third woman’s human rights were violated by the lack of legal
procedures for ascertaining whether or not she qualified for a
The ECHR affirmed that states have the right to ban
abortion, and did not establish a universal “right to abortion”two judgments welcomed by pro-life
activists and Church leaders.
While abortion has always been illegal in Ireland, a
1983 amendment to the country’s constitution recognizes the right to life of
the unborn, and provides for the protection of the unborn child “with due
regard to the equal right to life of the mother.”
The ECHR’s decision relied in large part on the
Supreme Court’s 1992 “X” case judgment. The case involved a 14-year-old girl
who had become pregnant as a result of rape. The girl’s claim to be
experiencing suicidal thoughts because of the unwanted pregnancy led the court
to rule that the girl had the right to an abortion in Ireland because there was
“a real and substantial risk” to her life.
Since that ruling successive governments keen to maintain their pro-life
policies have refused to pass legislation regulating abortion in such cases.
Similarly, in a number of referenda on the issue, a majority of voters have
refused to support direct abortion in any circumstances.
A 2002 attempt to overturn the Supreme Court decision
by referendum narrowly failed after pro-life voters were split on whether the
proposal went far enough. While the Catholic Church and mainstream pro-life
activists backed that move, other pro-lifers worried that extending legal
protection from implantation rather than conception could open the door to
Strasbourg-based body overseen by the 47-member-state Council of Europe (not to
be confused with the smaller, 27-member-state European Union)considered the cases of three Irish women
who insisted their human rights were violated because they had to travel to
neighboring Britain to obtain abortions. The three women were among an
estimated 4,000 Irish women who travel to Britain for abortions each year.
The crux of the case was the women’s argument that
their abortions were necessary and thus protected under the Irish constitution.
“Miss A” was a drug addict and alcoholic living in poverty when she became unintentionally
pregnant. She believed she should have been allowed to have an abortion under
the provisions of the Irish constitution. Pro-lifers in Ireland breathed a sigh
of relief as the ECHR rejected her claim utterly. Had the court backed her
case, it would have effectively been an endorsement of abortion on demand.
“Miss B,” who claimed she risked an ectopic pregnancy
had she carried her pregnancy to term, also had her case rejected by the court,
which found that there was not enough medical evidence to support her claim
that an ectopic pregnancy was a certainty.
In the case of “Miss C,” the woman involved was in
remission from a rare form of cancer and feared it would return once she became
unintentionally pregnant. However, the woman was unable to find a doctor
willing to make a determination as to whether her life would be at risk if she
continued her pregnancy to term, making it impossible for her to obtain an
abortion in Ireland.
The ECHR unanimously ruled that “C’s” human rights had
been breached, because, while the Irish Supreme Court ruled that the country’s
constitution allows for abortion in life-threatening situations, no legal
procedures for establishing whether or not a pregnancy is life-threatening
The court concluded that neither the “medical
consultation nor litigation options” provided by the Irish government
constituted an effective or accessible procedure. “Moreover, there was no
explanation why the existing constitutional right had not been implemented to
date,” the court ruled.
The court also determined that member states of the
Council of Europe are entitled to have laws banning abortion. But the ECHR did
state that countries are not entitled to have court-established rights for
which no legislation exists.
As a signatory to the European Convention of Human
Rights conventionwhich is now
incorporated into Irish lawthe Irish government is obliged to remedy any breaches of the
convention. However, the ECHR has no power to penalize Ireland for any
violations, or to impose any changes to Irish law.
The Irish government has defended its laws, saying
that they were based on “profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish
The establishment of the expert group to advise the government
on how to respond masks a deeper political split in the coalition government. Before
last year’s general election, the left-wing Labor Party promised to legislate
for abortion. However, center-right Fine Gael leaderand now Prime MinisterEnda Kenny signed a pre-election pledge
that he would not legislate for abortion. With Fine Gael holding 74 seats and
Labor just 35, the majority view looks likely to prevail, at least for now.
However, pro-life activists are not resting on their
laurels. Caroline Simons points out that “contrary to what pro-choice groups
claim, Ireland is not obliged to legislate for abortion following on from the
recent European Court of Human Rights ruling.”
“It would also be grossly irresponsible to do so, given the sheer volume of published
peer reviewed studies, highlighting the negative consequences of abortion for
women,” she insists.
Professor William Binchy, a constitutional lawyer at Dublin’s Trinity College,
agrees. He believes that “the task for the expert group is to recommend legal
support for doctors to continue to uphold the principle of doing the best
possible for two patientsmother and
Binchy believes the 1992 Supreme Court needs to overturned. “The mistake that
the Supreme Court made in the ‘X’ case was to embrace a quite different
principle: that it is permissible to target the unborn child and intentionally
terminate his or her life,” he said.
“The Supreme Court heard no expert psychiatric evidence. Over the 20 years
since the X case, the international research has shown a different reality:
studies have been published that identify abortion as involving a significant
increase in suicidal ideation and outcome,” Binchy insists.
He hopes “that the expert group will take a broad view
of its mandate and will guide the government on the range of social supports
that parents need in the awesome challenges that they may face in rearing the
children who depend on their care.”
The country’s most senior Churchman, Cardinal SeÁn
Brady of Armagh, said the expert group must recognize that the ECHR “judgment
leaves future policy in Ireland on protecting the lives of unborn children in
the hands of the Irish people, and does not oblige Ireland to introduce
legislation authorizing abortion.”
In the event of a referendum on whether or not
to introduce abortion, opinion polls appear heartening for the pro-life cause.
A November 2011 poll revealed that more than two-thirds of Irish people want to
see the unborn child’s right to life protected in law. Respondents were asked:
“Are you in favor or opposed to constitutional protection for the unborn that
prohibits abortion but allows the continuation of the existing practice of
intervention to save a mother's life, in accordance with Irish medical ethics?”
Sixty-one percent favored constitutional protection for the unborn child, with
17 percent opposed. When the 22 percent who expressed no view are excluded, 78
percent of Irish people favor legal protection for the unborn, while 22 percent