Fresh ban on abortion information in Ireland

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THE HIGH COURT in Dublin yesterday created an abortion law crisis for the European Community by issuing a fresh ban on providing referral information. The ruling is directly at odds with a joint declaration made by the 12 EC members last April which reaffirmed women's right to travel and to receive abortion information.

The court allowed a permanent injunction sought by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) preventing 14 named student union leaders from distributing information on UK abortion services.

It also passed case papers to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible criminal contempt proceedings against students over breaches of an earlier temporary court order.

Mr Justice Morris said the claim that the information had only directed women to places where abortion counselling and referral was provided, rather than directly to abortion clinics themselves, 'does not affect the issues in this case'. The judge ruled that all matters related to the Maastricht treaty, including the EC declaration, would only take effect in Irish law once the treaty came into effect, early next year. John Rogers SC, former Attorney General and counsel for the students, had maintained the declaration should be considered as having legal effect now.

Maxine Brady, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) said after the decision she and her co-defendants were prepared to go to jail and promised to continue providing the information on UK pregnancy advisory services.

She said the problem was now the responsibility of the Irish Government, and urged Prime Minister Albert Reynolds to speed up the deliberations of a Cabinet sub- committee which has for several months been considering options for dealing with the abortion law controversy.

It was given a new urgency by the ban - imposed in February by the High Court then lifted on appeal - on a pregnant 14-year-old, who was allegedly raped, from travelling to Britain for an abortion: the so-called 'X' case.

The latest decision adds to the embarrassment of the reforming Mr Reynolds who, in the wake of the case, warned that Ireland 'cannot live in isolation' from its neighbours. Faced by alarm among women, which he feared might undermine support for the Maastricht treaty before the referendum last June, he persuaded EC partners to agree a solemn declaration indicating the treaty 'shall not limit the freedom to travel or . . . to obtain or make available in Ireland information relating to services lawfully available in member states'. The treaty was carried with the backing of 69 per cent of the electorate on 18 June.

The pressure on the Government was increased yesterday by the decision of the Irish Family Planning Association to provide non-directive pregnancy counselling, including abortion, for women who felt they had no alternative.

Jackie Leone, an executive member, said: 'The association's policy is a direct response to the needs of Irish women as experienced on a daily basis in family planning centres.' Reaffirming the USI position Ms Brady said: 'There is no way you can say to these women, some of whom are in a very distressed state, 'you cannot have this information'. I think it is unbelievable that in 1992 we could put a woman in this position.

'The law at the moment is impossible to implement. I would hope other EC member states will be disappointed by this decision and begin to question the Irish government as to what they are doing, and how they intend to resolve this.'

She pointed to a statement made by Mr Reynolds during the Maastricht campaign indicating that there would be no more state injunctions after June if the treaty was approved in the vote that month.

This, she said, showed the Irish government believed the EC declaration had immediate effect, and was not in abeyance until next year, as the High Court ruled yesterday.

Dr John O'Connell, Minister for Health, said the government was 'determined to rectify the problem in the autumn'. He said the issue of whether women should have access to abortion information was now 'under serious consideration'.

The judgment was welcomed by Dr Mary Lucey, the president of the SPUC, who said she was 'very pleased that the law of Ireland has been upheld at long last'.