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Sexual and Reproductive Health Situation Report: Abortion ban in Ireland

May 12, 2010
The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report  is a monthly column devoted to international policy issues and current events around these critical rights.  This month we’re focusing on restrictive abortion legislation in Ireland, and a case currently before an international court to protect Irish women’s lives and health.

Anti-choice protesters in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson for The Guardian

Abortion has been illegal in the Republic of Ireland since the so-called “Offenses against the Person” Act of 1860, and legislation has become increasingly restrictive over time.  Irish women now face life in prison if they have abortions, and the fetus is protected in the Irish constitution.  

There is a provision in the law for risk to the woman’s life, or if (in an astonishingly paternalistic twist) the woman can prove she is suicidal.  Recently a 16-year-old won a Supreme Court case allowing her to travel to England to abort an anecephalic pregnancy– a disorder in which the fetus is missing part of the brain and skull and would not survive more than three days outside the womb.

While there is strong, mostly Catholic, anti-abortion sentiment in Ireland, most people there do support at least some form of legalization of abortion.  And the need is there– About 7,000 women a year travel to England, where abortion has been legal since the sixties, at personal expense.  This means that once again abortion is effectively unavailable to poor women, sometimes forcing them to risk their lives with clandestine providers.

Three women are challenging the repressive law before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  With the support of the Irish Family Planning Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, A, B, and C are claiming that having been forced to travel to the UK to receive abortion services “stigmatised and humiliated.”  They’re arguing that the Irish law violates their rights to privacy and family life, rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically he Articles 2, 3, 8 and 14 of the Convention: the right to life, the prohibition on torture, the right to respect family and private life, and the prohibition against discrimination.

The women have chosen to remain anonymous, and with good reason.  Not only are they at risk of imprisonment under the law, they would also undoubtedly become the targets of other Irish citizens.  The right in Ireland has resorted to nasty “baby-killer” rhetoric, and organizations which look suspiciously like “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” invite women in only to have them hold little models of fetuses and beg them not to murder their babies.

The right wing is successfully steering the conversation, and it’s not the only responsible party.  According to Human Rights Watch, the Irish government goes beyond endangering women’s lives through a legislative restriction, and has been spreading “grossly misleading information” on the nature and consequences of abortion.  Many have accused the government of uncomfortably close ties with the Catholic church, and the church has threatened ex-communication of any Irish public figures who support abortion.

The case before the Court is extremely significant for several reasons.  First, any time abortion comes before an international legal body it re-affirms the status of abortion as a human rights issue.  Second, Ireland may indeed need to re-think abortion law, as Poland has done in the wake of an abortion case recently heard by the ECHR.  Finally, each case that comes before the ECHR strengthens the imperative for liberalizing abortion law around the world, and builds jurisprudence on women’s right to decide under international law.

Interestingly, the Irish government is focusing it’s defense of the law around two key areas: the old “morality” bugaboo, and the implications of a ECHR decision for state sovereignty.  This tack fails to address the actual merits of the case, implicitly recognizing that it is very difficult to make a cogent case against a woman’s human right to access reproductive health services, including abortion.

I am hopeful that the Court will rule in favor of A, B, and C, and for the ongoing health and autonomy of Irish women.  I am also hopeful that the Court’s decision will prompt cases from other countries with repressive abortion policies and the liberalization of abortion law all over the world.

Brook Elliott Buettner is a freelance human rights policy writer.  More of her work is available at

  1. May 13, 2010 5:29 am

    While being hopeful the Court will rule in favour of A,B and C, it still has to be noted that the Irish government will still be loathe to decriminalise abortion – they generally buckle to a small but very vocal and very well-resourced conservative minority. As well as that they are perfectly happy with exporting the problem and ensuring that thousands of women travel to Britain and elsewhere to have abortions.
    Activist group Choice Ireland have been campaigning on this issue since 2007, ( Please check out the CI website for more info on the struggle for abortion rights in Ireland. And if you’re feeling generous, donate some cash to a very worthy cause! 🙂

    PS. Thanks for highlighting this issue on your blog!


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