A landmark European human rights ruling could prompt a re-think of the abortion ban in Ireland. The attorney for the women tells Channel 4 News the Irish Government will have to act.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a woman who had to travel out of Ireland to terminate a pregnancy while in remission from cancer had her human rights violated because of the Irish ban on abortion.
The Lithuanian woman was one of three unnamed women fighting the landmark legal battle, aiming to change Ireland's abortion laws by proving that they contravene the European Convention of Human Rights. The other two had their cases dismissed.
However, the ruling in just one case could still have major implications for Ireland's law on abortion. It is only allowed at the moment if there is a real or substantial risk to the life of the expectant mother and thousands of women travel out of Ireland every year to avoid the laws in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
While there is a legal right to abortion in life-threatening circumstances in Ireland, in practice it is very difficult even for women in these circumstances to access abortion services for a number of reasons, not least the serious legal implications for doctors who are found to have provided abortions to women whose lives are not actually at risk.
Niall Behan, the Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), which supported the case, said a number of steps would now have to happen, but still welcomed the "landmark" decision.
He said: "Today's decision is a landmark one for Ireland and, in particular, for women and girls. The very considered and clear view of the European Court of Human Rights leaves no option available to the Irish State other than to legislate for abortion services in cases where a woman's life is at risk.
It is very likely that things will change and have to change in Ireland. Julie Kay, attorney for the women
"As a first and immediate step, we are calling on the Government to set out how it intends to address today's ruling, and ensure that no further violations of human rights take place because of the State's failure to offer safe and legal abortion services in – albeit – limited circumstances."
He said Ireland did not need another referendum, or more court judgements, to change the rules on abortion, which was outlawed in 1861.
Ireland's constitution "acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."
Julie Kay, the lead attorney for the women, told Channel 4 News: "It is very likely that things will change and have to change in Ireland because there has been an unequivocal condemnation from the European Court of Human Rights on Ireland's abortion law."
She said the immediate change would be for women in life-threatening situations, but the "real question" is on reform for women whose lives are not at risk.
Unlikely to change matters for many Irish women
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) told Channel 4 News that this also remained a serious issue.
Bpas' Chief Executive Ann Furedi said: "Although this ruling may help a tiny number of women of with life-threatening conditions it is unlikely to do much to change matters for the many women from Ireland with crisis pregnancies who must travel to access a fundamental service routinely available throughout Europe but which they are denied.
Although this ruling may help a tiny number of women with life-threatening conditions, it is unlikely to do much to change matters for many women in Ireland. Bpas Chief Executive, Ann Furedi.
"Contraception fails in Ireland as it does in England, and women have abortions – but they do so here, while their political leaders look away. We hope this case has gone some way in highlighting the plight of thousands of women from Ireland every year, who simply want to be able to make meaningful, responsible decisions about their lives, their families, and their futures.
"The lack of clarity as to when abortion may be lawful in Ireland puts women and doctors in an impossible situation, and the sooner this can be remedied the better."
But anti-abortion campaigners criticised the judgement.
John Smeaton, national director of the Society for Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said: "This case was never about helping women faced with a crisis pregnancy. It was instigated by the international abortion lobby, which has with the ultimate aim of forcing governments across the globe to recognise access to abortion as a legal right.
"This warped decision lacks all legitimacy. It is vitally important that the people of Ireland continue to stand-up for the rights of unborn children who are the youngest and most vulnerable members of society. Abortion not only kills children: it is deeply damaging to women."
The woman who has sparked the debate took her case against the Irish Government with two other women, claiming restrictions on abortion stigmatised and humilitated them, and risked damaging their health.
The case was heard a year ago in Strasbourg and the ruling delivered today.
The woman said her life had been put at risk by being forced to travel to England for an abortion. She had originally sought an abortion over fears that her pregnancy would cause a relapse of her cancer, and because of risks to the foetus.
All three women said they had suffered complications after their abortions in 2005, which they said were unnecessarily expensive, complicated and traumatic.
For the first two women - one of whom was at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, and one who had had children taken into care already because of personal problems - the European court found that the womens' rights were not violated because Irish law was trying to protect public morals.
In the third woman's case, the only successful case, judges ruled that the only non-judicial means for determining her risk was a doctor's opinion, which they said was ineffective, and enough information was not provided to her. They also said the doctor involved faced a threat of life in jail if they ordered an abortion and were later found wrong.
The court also criticised the Irish government for not providing clear information on lawful abortions, and said there had been no explanation why the existing constitutional right to abortion, due to the risk to the mother's life, had not been implemented. The court ruled Ireland had breached the woman's right to respect for her private life because of this failure.