Reform of Ireland's abortion ban law ordered

Ireland has been ordered to reform complex abortion laws after European judges ruled that a ban violated the rights of a woman who feared a cancer relapse during an unplanned pregnancy.

The woman was being treated for a rare form of the disease and was forced to travel to the UK in 2005 for a termination because of fears that she or the unborn child would fall seriously ill.

Known only as "C" the woman, a Lithuanian, said she could not get clear advice in Ireland and the country's limited ban stigmatised and humiliated her and put her health at risk.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had failed to give domestic courts clear direction on when abortion is legal.

The government said it would consider the judgment carefully and consider what steps were needed to implement it.

Despite the ruling health minister Mary Harney suggested the country would not be thrown into a contentious fourth referendum on the issue, 27 years after the first.

"I don't want to pretend that there is an easy solution. We have to legislate, there's no doubt about that," she said.

No deadline for enforcing new abortion laws has been set by the Strasbourg court and Ms Harney insisted it would take months to prepare new legislation.

Susan McKay, chief executive of the National Women's Council of Ireland, accused the government of putting up a shameful defence of broken Irish law.

"The government tried to claim that its cowardly position was based on profound moral values. This was a shameful defence. How can forcing women with life-threatening illnesses to go abroad for a medical procedure be moral?" Ms McKay asked. "The decision to have an abortion is not a happy one or one that can be lightly taken but there are circumstances in which it is necessary."

Ireland has had three referendums on abortion law: 1983, affirming an outright ban; 1992, allowing women legally to travel for a termination and access information while maintaining the domestic ban; 2002, when by a margin of less than 1 per cent of the vote the ban was upheld.

A series of court judgments has, however, complicated issues such as the X case of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped. She was allowed to travel because of the real and substantial risk to her life from suicide.

Ms Harney claimed there had been no appetite for new laws since the divisive issue was last put to referendum in 2002.

As it stands in Ireland, a woman is allowed an abortion if her life is at risk from high blood pressure, an ectopic pregnancy or cervical cancer. The issue of suicide and other health complications are not set down in law.

Two other women, known only as A and B, who also claimed a violation of rights over the abortion ban had their cases dismissed.

The European Court found that the only non-judicial means for determining the risk facing the Lithuanian woman was a doctor's opinion, which they said was ineffective. She had undergone chemotherapy and was in remission from cancer when she unintentionally fell pregnant.

The judges said under Irish law a doctor faced the "chilling" threat of life in jail if he or she ordered an abortion and was later found to be wrong.

The court criticised the government for leaving judges with a lack of clear information on lawful abortion. And it said there had been no explanation why the existing constitutional right to abortion, fromreal and substantial risk to the life of the expectant mother, had not been implemented.

Ireland's right to limit abortion was cemented in amendments to the Lisbon Treaty after a study suggested it was a major reason the treaty was rejected in 2008.