Students defend right to abortion information: The Dublin High Court will today establish an important landmark for women in Ireland. Alan Murdoch reports

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The Independent Online
IRISH LAW may today embark on a collision course with the European Community and its commitment on women's right to information on abortion services.

The Dublin High Court is to deliver its decision on an attempt by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) to suppress publication of information in Ireland on abortion services in Britain.

The SPUC is seeking a permanent injunction, following a series of interim ones, preventing 14 named student union leaders from distributing details of UK abortion services.

The judgment will be closely studied by an Irish Cabinet sub-committee due to report next month on abortion.

A ban on the information would contradict the terms of a declaration made in April by the 12 EC states against limiting Irish women's travel and information rights.

The issue gained renewed impetus last February after a High Court judge barred a pregnant 14-year-old, who was allegedly raped, from travelling to Britain for an abortion, citing the Irish Constitution's guarantee of equal right to life for the unborn.

Without ruling on travel rights, the Supreme Court, on appeal, said abortion was legal in Ireland if there was a serious risk to the life of the mother, the girl having threatened to commit suicide. She later had an abortion in England. During four days of hearings spread over the past fortnight, the Dublin High Court has heard arguments that not only embrace the abortion debate but also women's right to travel.

Doctors have told the court that it is better for women considering having abortions to have full access to good quality information than to remain ignorant. Dr Mary Randles, a Navan GP, told the court that medical conditions affecting patients in her care could lead to complications if they decided to have an abortion, and so it was important that the surgeon who performed the termination should be fully aware of the woman's medical history.

If Dr Randles knew such a patient was travelling to the UK for an abortion 'my duty of care would mean (advising) that some places were more appropriate than others to carry it out'.

Dr Austin O'Carroll, a GP working in the low-income Dublin city areas of Ballyfermot and Inchicore, said women patients approached him seeking information on abortion. 'I would always say I will not provide information without counselling.' Dr O'Carroll said he first listened to the patient, then discussed her alternatives. 'People will not come to me if I do not discuss the option of abortion,' he said.

Asked his own view of abortion, Dr O'Carroll said he could not decide - 'my own reaction is I'm more against it than for' - but if a woman decided on a termination, 'I will provide an address where to go to'. He produced a letter for such patients explaining medical complications, and he felt it was his responsibility to ensure the woman 'goes to a properly-run clinic'.

Asked if student unions were appropriate suppliers of information, Dr O'Carroll replied: 'I think it would be far better if medical advisers gave it, but that's recognising that that's not available.'

One of those named in the action, Karen Quinlivan, formerly women's rights officer in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), said its policy of providing information on pregnancy advice bureaux had been endorsed by votes in college meetings.

USI material presented 'all the options' open to pregnant women including keeping the child, fostering and abortion.

Ms Quinlivan said similar information was widely available elsewhere: she cited abortion services in British telephone directories held by the Dublin post office and libraries, and said that Dublin bookshops held books on women's health containing details of abortion services.

Ms Quinlivan said the students' union had continued to provide abortion information 'because it is better that a woman be given full factual information than travel in ignorance. We have no evidence that women will stop going because they're denied information'.

She emphasised the union was not giving out addresses of abortion clinics, but pregnancy advisory clinics where women would receive counselling. She said UK law meant a woman could not go directly for an abortion, which was available only after seeing a counsellor and two medical doctors.

During the hearing, John Rogers, counsel for the student leaders, argued that travel rights underpinned by EC law could not be separated from rights to obtain or give information.

'It defies reason to say that a person is entitled to take the service, but that the person with information about it is not entitled to give it,' he said.

'If I have a right to go on holiday to Spain, Ireland cannot . . . impose a clampdown on the advertising of bijou cottages on the slopes of the Canaries. If a travel agent challenged such a ban, he would be entitled to say that if a person wants to go to the Canaries he's entitled to get it (information) and I'm entitled to give it.' Marie Vernon, assistant secretary and public relations officer for the SPUC in Ireland, said the organisation had made a 'political decision' not to challenge women's right to travel. 'It would be ludicrous, fantastical and open to a lot of resentment to try and stop women from travelling. We live in the real world.'

She added: 'I did object to them travelling but I do not think it is within our power to stop them.'

Mr Rogers asked: 'You do not seek to stop them going by direct injunction but you seek to stop them going by depriving them of information?'

Mrs Vernon replied: 'The information is assisting women to have abortion. In my view it is much better that (a woman) did not have the information and had the child.'

Citing the earlier evidence from the two GPs, and constraints on aftercare in Ireland for women after terminations, Mr Rogers argued that 'protection of bodily integrity of these women requires that they should have basic information. Their doctors should have the right to give information on complicating factors - that is necessitated by the protection of their bodily integrity.' The right to bodily integrity was secured, he said, by the Irish Constitution and upheld in a 1964 Supreme Court ruling.

Counsel for the SPUC, Shane Murphy, in summing up rejected the suggestion that abortion referral information as provided by the student unions could be termed a 'service' in the sense meant in EC law, as it was not supplied in return for remuneration. The travel agent analogy used by Mr Rogers was thus misplaced, he said.

A travel agent did have an economic link with the service through the booking process.

On health issues raised by Mr Rogers where womens' travel rights were restricted, he said the test to be applied was that laid down by the Chief Justice, that if there were a real threat to the life of the mother, where her life could only be protected by termination, then that should be permitted.

None of the rights cited by counsel for the students could balance or exceed the right to life of the unborn child. 'If extinguished it cannot be replaced, and if ended it cannot be compensated for,' he said.

Mr Justice Morris asked him how he should respond to Mr Rogers' case that a woman wishing to have an abortion would have a right based on bodily integrity to have it in the best circumstances and to know which was a good clinic, 'given that if she went to a back-street clinic she may well suffer injuries of a very serious nature'.

Mr Murphy said the judge should resolve that by the priority of rights laid down by the Chief Justice, which had put the right to life of the unborn above that of the right to travel.

'Rights to bodily integrity are not on a par with the right to life of the unborn,' he said. 'The definitive right is the right to life itself. I say everything must come second to the right to life - the right to life of the unborn child.'