STRASBOURG, France — A European court’s ruling regarding abortion laws in Ireland is not binding on the country, pro-life groups in Ireland say.

Yes, last Thursday’s ruling of the European Court of Human Rights is an attack on Ireland’s national sovereignty, they assert.

The court ruled Dec. 16 in the case of three Irish women — known as A, B and C — who sued the Irish state, where abortion is illegal except in instances where the mother’s life is at grave risk. The three, who traveled separately to the United Kingdom to have abortions, argued that a section of the Irish constitution which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother” violated their right to respect for their private life guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court found that this right had not been violated in the cases of A and B but had been in the case of C, who was in remission from cancer at the time and claimed not to have been given clear medical guidance about risks to her health if she had gone through the full term of pregnancy.

Sinéad Ahern, spokeswoman for the campaign group Choice Ireland, welcomed the decision, describing it as “effectively an instruction to the Irish government that it must legislate for the X Case.”

The Irish Supreme Court ruled in 1992 in what became known as the “X Case” that Irish women have the right to an abortion if a woman’s pregnancy puts her life in danger. The ECHR ruling observes that Parliament never enacted “legislation regulating that constitutionally guaranteed right.”

Nevertheless, Ahearn admitted that the pro-abortion group was disappointed “that no violation was found in respect of two of the applicants. However, the court’s judgment is critical of the Irish regime in many respects and clearly demonstrates that Irish law is out of step with much of the rest of Europe.”

Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, hinted at disappointment that the Court had not made specific recommendations for access to abortion when the life of the woman is not at risk: “The Court has clearly indicated that there are some serious human rights implications for women who are denied abortion services in Ireland across a range of circumstances. It recognized the harm that befell all of three women who took their case to the Court. Rather than offering a specific verdict, it has left it up to the Irish State to decide on abortion policy in broader circumstances, beyond where the life of a woman is at risk.”

Not Binding

Yet pro-life groups were unanimous in their opinion that the ruling was not binding or enforceable. Rebecca Roughneen, spokeswoman for Youth Defence, said, “This ruling should be dismissed out of hand by the government, since it is an unwarranted attempt to coerce the Irish people and overturn our ban on abortion. In fact, far from violating human rights, Ireland’s pro-life ethos upholds and respects the human rights of both mother and child.”

She branded the campaign a propaganda initiative by the Irish Family Planning Association and pointed out that the UN has found Ireland to be the safest place in the world for a woman to have a baby.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute echoed these views: “The ruling is not enforceable. The Court cannot force Ireland to change her laws or collect penalties from Ireland if we refuse. ... In Ireland, under our constitution, the people are sovereign: they will make the final decision in regard to abortion. That’s a right the Irish people feel very strongly about and that’s why our politicians haven’t moved to legalize abortion here — because there would be uproar.”

In a statement, Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, declared, “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.

“The Irish Constitution,” he continued, “clearly says that the right to life of the unborn child is equal to that of his or her mother. These are the fundamental human rights at stake. The Catholic Church teaches that neither the unborn child nor the mother may be deliberately killed.”

He went on to declare that “No law which subordinates the rights of any human being to those of other human beings can be regarded as a just law.”

David Quinn, former editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper, said that though the ruling was disappointing, it could have been far worse.

“The court could have found a right to abortion in the Convention and it didn’t,” Quinn said. “It has basically told Ireland it should legislate for the terms of the X Case, which allows for abortion where the life of the mother is held to be at risk. However, the ECHR decision is not binding in Irish law.”

He also dismissed the long-term impact of the ruling: “This is likely to be a two-day wonder because the economy is almost completely dominating the agenda here and when a new government comes into power, probably about March, that will be on its plate.”

Nevertheless, pro-life campaigners promised to maintain their strenuous efforts against what they see as pressure being placed on Ireland to legalize abortion. Roughneen, of Youth Defence, said, “The Irish people have shown in three separate referenda that they don’t want abortion legalized here. It’s very significant that abortion campaigners wanted to use a foreign court to impose abortion on the Irish people. They’re desperate to bypass the democratic right of the people to choose. This is one country which has not fallen to the abortion industry, and we’re working to keep it that way.

“The right to life has always been upheld by the people, not by governments or quangos [quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations),” Roughneen said. “As long as we can keep informing and educating the Irish people, we’ll succeed in preventing abortion from being legalized abortion in Ireland.”

Register correspondent James Kelly writes from London.