In its judgment, which will have political repercussions in the run- up to the Irish referendum on abortion in six weeks, the court in Strasbourg ruled that Ireland had breached the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms when its Supreme Court ordered two counselling organisations in 1988 to stop giving information about how to get abortions in Britain.
The convention lays down a right to freedom of expression, including the freedom 'to receive and impart information and ideas', but allows governments to make that right subject to 'such restrictions as are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of health or morals'.
To the government's legal confusion and political embarrassment, the ban has been read by Irish courts as banning Irish women not merely from having abortions but also from travelling abroad to have them or receiving information about how to do so.
In 1988, the Irish Supreme Court responded to a complaint by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) by issuing wide-ranging injunctions against two counselling agencies, the Dublin Well Woman Centre and Open Door Counselling, forbidding them to tell Irish women 'the identity and location' of abortion clinics in Britain.
The Court in Strasbourg awarded the Dublin Well Woman Centre pounds 27,964 (Ir pounds 25,000) for loss of income, and pounds 111,857 (Ir pounds 100,000) in costs, and Open Door costs of pounds 77,165 (Ir pounds 68,986).
In judging that the Irish injunction had breached the human rights convention, the court acknowledged that the abortion ban and the injunction had legitimate aims but rejected that they were 'necessary in a democratic society'. It also attacked the injunction as 'over-broad and disproportionate'.
The court also criticised the Irish government for taking such a strict line on the two agencies when the abortion information was already available elsewhere, such as in telephone books and magazines.
The judgment puts the Dublin government under extra pressure to win the information and travel votes next month, as their defeat would once again set Irish and European law in head-on conflict.
Irish ministers are hoping that their political embarrassments over abortion will come to an end after the referendum on 3 December, in which Irish citizens will vote separately on the right to abortion and the two linked rights to information and travel.
Dublin tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to have new text written into the Maastricht treaty to clarify that the abortion ban should not be construed as a travel ban also. Opinion polls suggest that although abortion itself remains controversial, Irish voters will opt to allow women to travel abroad for abortions and to receive abortion information.
Irish homosexuals demonstrated outside the Irish parliament yesterday in protest at the government's failure to implement a separate ruling four years ago by the Strasbourg court on the Irish ban on homosexuality. A spokesman yesterday confirmed that the government was continuing to defy the ruling.
The Dublin Well Woman Clinic and Open Line Counselling (the service operated by the company Open Door) said they would now review their services.
Rita Burtenshaw, director of the Well Woman Clinic, said much of the damages it was awarded would be used in its pregnancy advisory services.
Ruth Riddick, of Open Line, said she was 'delighted' by the ruling. The Irish court rulings had, she said, 'created an unreal distinction between information and counselling'.
Tony O'Brien, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), said that the decision was 'a vindication of the stand against the anti-humanitarian policy of the Irish Government'.
He blamed the legal battles on SPUC which he said had 'brought about the infringement of human rights of Irish citizens. Members of SPUC should govern their own lives as they wish, and allow the same freedom to others'.
Marie Vernon, a spokeswoman for SPUC, suggested the European decision was in direct conflict with an Irish constitutional provision, set in 1983, guaranteeing the equal right to life of the unborn foetus and the mother. She said she hoped the rights of the foetus 'will still be enshrined in the Irish constitution' after the referendum.Reuse content