Irish pro-life activists have called on their government to hold a referendum to restore full legal protection to the unborn after a controversial European Court ruling that is set to increase political pressure on the country to legislate for abortion in certain circumstances. The issue has been thrust center stage as the country prepares for a general election early this year. 

While having no authority to impose abortion, the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled Dec. 16 that an Irishwoman’s human rights had been breached because she was not able to have an abortion in Ireland. 

Ireland and Malta are the only two countries in the 47-member-state Council of Europe where there is still a ban on abortion. However, the issue in Ireland was complicated considerably by a 1992 Supreme Court ruling — known as the “X” Case — which found that Irishwomen do have a constitutional right to abortion where there is a threat to the life of the mother. 

Crux of the case 

The situation has remained in a status quo ever since as successive governments — keen to keep their pro-life policy — have refused to legislate to allow abortion. Similarly, in a number of referenda on the issue the Irish people have refused to support direct abortion in any circumstances. Guidelines from the Irish Medical Council describe direct abortion as “professional misconduct” but allow doctors to carry out medical procedures to save the life of the mother which unintentionally result in the death of the unborn child. 

The recent ECHR ruling came about when three Irishwomen — known as Misses “A,” “B” and “C” — took a case to the body insisting that their human rights were violated because they had to travel to neighboring Britain for an abortion. The crux of the case was that the women were arguing that their abortions were necessary. “Miss A” was a drug addict and alcoholic living in poverty at the time she became unintentionally pregnant. Pro-lifers breathed a sigh of relief as the ECHR rejected her claim utterly. Had they backed her case it would have effectively been an endorsement of abortion-on-demand. 

“Miss B” — who claimed she risked an ectopic pregnancy had her pregnancy gone full-term — also had her case rejected by the court when the judges found that there was not enough medical evidence to support her claim that an ectopic pregnancy was a certainty. 

Finally, “Miss C” was in remission from a rare form of cancer and feared it may return when she became unintentionally pregnant. The ECHR unanimously ruled that her human rights had been breached because in Ireland a technical right to abortion in such circumstances was created by the 1992 Supreme Court ruling. 

‘Deeply embedded’ values 

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. 

“There was no explanation why the existing constitution right had not been implemented to date,” the court ruled. 

However, in a move that is being welcomed by pro-life activists, the ECHR found that there is in principle no right to an abortion. The court also ruled that member states are entitled to have laws banning abortion, but not entitled to have court-established rights that are not legislated for. 

The Irish Government defended its laws, insisting they were based on “profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish society.” 

It maintained that the women’s challenge sought to undermine these principles and align Ireland with countries with more liberal abortion laws. 

Pro-life activists have asked the government to move to restore full constitutional protection to the unborn by reversing the Supreme Court decision, and Independent Sen. Ronan Mullen has called for a national referendum. 

“The only reason the ECHR made this judgment is because the Supreme Court made its flawed interpretation of the [Irish] constitution. We now need to have a referendum that will restore the full legal and constitutional protection for the unborn that was undermined by the Supreme Court,” Senator Mullen told Our Sunday Visitor. 

William Binchy, a constitutional lawyer and professor, told OSV: “The most important [thing] is that the judgment does not require Ireland to introduce legislation authorizing abortion. On the contrary, it fully respects the entitlement of the Irish people to determine legal policy on protecting the lives of unborn children.” 

Abortion political agenda 

“The Irish people must now make a choice,” Binchy said. “If they were to choose to endorse the Supreme Court decision in ‘X,’ this would involve legalizing abortion contrary to existing medical practice and the best evidence of medical research. If, on the other hand, the Irish people choose to endorse the current medical practice, they will be ensuring the continuation of Ireland’s world-renowned safety record for mothers and babies during pregnancy.” 

Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, said the “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.” 

The ruling puts the issue of abortion back on the political agenda as the country prepares for a general election early next year. Both main parties — the current governing Fianna Fáil party and the main opposition Fine Gael — have policies opposed to abortion. Only the minority Labour and Sinn Féin parties support the introduction of abortion. 

A fresh opinion poll released Dec. 20 in the wake of the ruling reveals that the vast majority of Irish people support legally protecting unborn children from abortion. The poll question 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 ethic?” 

Sixty-eight percent of respondents supported protecting the unborn, 14 percent were opposed and 18 percent were unsure or had no opinion. 

Dr. Ruth Cullen of the Pro-Life Campaign told OSV: “Unfortunately, the ECHR decision has created the impression that pregnant women are somehow denied necessary medical treatments in this country. This is completely false. In fact, Ireland is the safest country in the world in which to be pregnant, safer than countries like Britain and Holland, where abortion is legal on demand as evidenced by the latest U.N. report on maternal health, which was published in September.” 

“It is remarkable that the judges in the ECHR case heard no medical evidence at all, but, still, pro-choice groups are using the decision for propaganda purposes to push for abortion,” Cullen said. 

As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights — now incorporated into Irish law — the government is obliged to remedy any breaches of the convention. However, there is no time frame and the court has no right to propose or impose legislation to the Irish legislature. 

All three women were among an estimated 4,000 Irish women who travel to Britain for an abortion each year. 

Michael Kelly writes from Ireland.

Rights Court (sidebar)

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established in 1959 as a permanent body of the 47-member Council of Europe. The court hears cases of European citizens who believe that their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights have been breached. 

The court is not to be confused with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a body of the 27-member European Union (EU). 

While the EU exists to foster political and economic unity between the member states who pool sovereignty in several key policy areas, the Council of Europe is mainly concerned with ensuring universal human-rights standards across member states.