DUBLIN — Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion violates pregnant women's right to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday, harshly criticizing Ireland's long inaction on the issue.
The Strasbourg, France-based court ruled that a pregnant woman fighting cancer should have been allowed to get an abortion in Ireland in 2005 rather than being forced to go to England for the procedure.
The judgment put Ireland under pressure to draft a law extending abortion rights to women whose pregnancies represent a potentially fatal threat to their own health. But Catholic leaders and antiabortion activists insisted that Ireland had no legal obligation to do anything despite the court ruling.
Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, said the ruling "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."
Ireland has failed to pass any laws supporting a 1992 judgment from the Irish Supreme Court that said Ireland should provide abortions in cases where a woman's life is endangered — including, controversially, by her own threats to commit suicide.
The 18-year delay has created a legal limbo, forcing many women to travel overseas for an abortion rather than rely on Irish doctors fearful of being prosecuted.
In an 11-6 verdict, the 17 Strasbourg judges said Ireland was wrong to keep the legal situation unclear and said the Irish government had offered no credible explanation for its failure. The Irish judge on the panel, Mary Finlay Geoghegan, sided with that majority view.
Under Irish law dating back to 1861, a doctor and patient both could be prosecuted for murder if an abortion was later deemed not to be medically necessary.
The Strasbourg court broadly upheld Ireland's right to outlaw abortion in the overwhelming majority of cases because that reflects "the profound moral values of the Irish people in respect of the right to life of the unborn." Voters in this predominantly Catholic nation enshrined that ban into the Irish Constitution in 1983.
But the court found Ireland guilty of violating one woman's rights.
The lawsuit dates back to 2005, when the Irish Family Planning Association sued Ireland's government on behalf of three women who traveled overseas that year for abortions: an Irish woman who had four previous children placed in state care, an Irish woman who didn't want to become a single mother, and a Lithuanian woman living in Ireland who was in remission from a rare form of cancer.
The judges said the first two women had failed to demonstrate that their pregnancies represented a sufficient risk to their health, but the Lithuanian woman faced a life-threatening situation. It ordered Ireland to pay her $20,000 in damages.
The judges lambasted Ireland's defense claiming that the woman should have petitioned the Irish High Court for the right to have an abortion in Ireland. They said Irish doctors must be given clear legal guidance on the eligibility rules for abortions.
The vast majority of nations in the 47-member Council of Europe permit broad access to abortion, most recently Spain, which legalized first-trimester abortions in July. Only Malta and Vatican City ban the practice outright, while several others seek to limit it to exceptional cases including rape and fetal abnormalities.