What the European court said on Irish abortion law (Analysis)
December 17, 2010
Reacting to a European court decision that held that the Irish laws violated the human rights of a woman seeking abortion, some Irish politicians have called for new legislation broadening access to abortion. But pro-life activists and Catholic Church leaders have insisted that the existing laws protecting unborn human life should remain in place.
The December 16 decision by the European Court of Human Rights was not a front assault on the Irish laws restricting abortion. Unlike the Roe v. Wade decision, the European court finding did not claim that restrictions on abortion are inherently unjust. In fact, the court upheld the right of the state to limit abortion.
However, the European court ruled that in a specific case, when a woman’s health might be endangered by continuing a pregnancy, Ireland has not made adequate provision for allowing access to abortion. The Strasbourg court charged that Ireland has failed to implement a 1992 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, which found in the controversial “X case” that abortion must be made legally available to women whose lives would be endangered by pregnancy. Abortion remains illegal in Ireland under all other circumstances.
Thus the European ruling does not require Ireland to repeal its laws against abortion, but only to make some legal provision for those cases in which a pregnant woman’s life or health may be in danger. The European Court of Human Rights has no formal power to enforce its ruling, but the Irish government has indicated that it will study the decision and plan appropriate legislative action.
Irish politicians who favor more liberal access to abortion have used the European court ruling as an occasion to press for broad new legislation. But pro-life leaders—clearly anxious to stop the erosion of legal protection for unborn children—have issued reminders that the Strasbourg court does not require any major changes in Ireland’s policy on the issue.
“Today's 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,” observed Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the Primate of All Ireland.
Under existing Irish law, Cardinal Brady said, doctors are legally obliged to protect both the life of the mother and that of the unborn child. Arguing strongly against any effort to introduce new policies legalizing abortion, the cardinal said: “No law which subordinates the rights of any human being to those of other human beings can be regarded as a just law.”
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- Statement by Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh (Irish bishops' conference)
- Calls in Seanad for abortion legislation (RTE)
- ECHR Judgment does not require Ireland to introduce legislation authorising abortion (Pro-life campaign)
- European court: Ireland's laws against abortion violate human rights (CWN, 12/16)
- Good News, Bad News in European Abortion Decision (National Review)
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