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Catholic Church stands firm after Euro ruling on abortion

Published 17/12/2010

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland has insisted there is no obligation on the Irish government to introduce limited legislation allowing for abortions.

The Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Sean Brady was speaking after the Irish government last night finally conceded it will have to legalise abortion in limited circumstances after a woman with a rare form of cancer won her legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Almost 20 years after the Republic’s infamous X case (see right), the Strasbourg-based court ruled that a Lithuanian woman who travelled out of Ireland to terminate a pregnancy, while in remission from cancer, had her human rights violated. She was one of three unnamed women fighting a landmark legal battle to overturn Ireland's restrictive abortion laws.

The woman claimed her life had been put at risk by being forced to travel to England for the procedure.

In a hardline statement signalling the opposition of the Irish Church to any moves towards liberalisation of abortion law, Cardinal Brady said the judgment leaves future policy in Ireland on protecting the lives of unborn children in the hands of the Irish people.

“It does not oblige Ireland to introduce legislation authorising abortion,” he claimed. But the all-Ireland Primate acknowledged that the judgment raised “profound moral and legal issues which will require careful analysis and reflection by the Catholic bishops”.

Yesterday, the ECHR, which convened a full 17-judge grand chamber to hear the case, ruled that the Irish Republic breached the woman's right to respect for her private life as it had failed to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion.

It found that the woman, who feared her cancer would relapse as a result of her pregnancy, had no “effective or accessible procedure” to establish her right to a legal abortion.

The judges ruled that the only non-judicial means for determining the risk she was facing was a doctor's opinion, which they said was ineffective.

The woman, known as Miss C, was awarded €15,000 in damages, but the other two applicants' cases failed.

Last night, the Irish Family Planning Association, which supported the three women, said the Irish government could no longer ignore the imperative to legislate for abortion where women's lives were at risk.

“No other woman in a life-threatening situation should be forced to endure the uncertainty, humiliation and distress that Applicant C in the European Court of Human Rights case did when faced with a threat to her life and health,” said Julie F Kay, lead legal counsel for the women.

But Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who was attending an EU leaders' summit in Brussels yesterday, refused to be drawn on what action the Government, or more likely the next administration, would have to take on foot of the ruling, which had raised “difficult issues”.

“It is important to point out as a general principle that the law has not been held to be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights, but clearly there has been a decision in respect of one of the cases that was brought,” he said. “I don't think we can jump to any quick conclusion.”

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