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 that the Government failed to give domestic courts clear direction on when abortion is legal.
Despite the ruling Health Minister Mary Harney suggested the country would not be thrown into a contentious fourth referendum, 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.
Ms Harney insisted it would take months to prepare new legislation but dismissed suggestions she was putting the divisive issue on the long finger.
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 referenda on abortion law: 1983, affirming an outright ban; 1992, allowing women to legally travel for a termination and access information while maintaining the domestic ban; 2002, when by a margin of less than 1% of the vote the ban was upheld.
However, a series of court judgments 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 has 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.
Julie Kay, lead legal counsel for the women, said: "For decades the state has ignored its legal responsibility and has turned a blind eye to protecting the life and health of women in such dire circumstances.
"No other woman in a life-threatening situation should be forced to endure the uncertainty, humiliation and distress that applicant C in the European Court of Human Rights case did when faced with a threat to her life and health."
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, due to real and substantial risk to the life of the expectant mother, had not been implemented.
According to Britain's Department of Health, 4,422 women gave Irish addresses at UK hospitals and clinics while attending for abortion. The figure is down from 6,673 in 2001.
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.
Niall Behan, Irish Family Planning Association chief executive, said the ruling was a landmark for Ireland and, in particular, for women and girls.
"We don't need another constitutional referendum, nor do we need any further court judgments," Mr Behan said.
Tracey McNeill, vice-president of Marie Stopes International, said: "What we would like to see in the future is Irish women having the same fundamental rights to choose as people in the rest of Europe."
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics For Choice, said Irish politicians have been too willing to bow to rules of the conservative Catholic hierarchy.
"It's time to recognise that the bishops don't speak for the Irish people, Catholic or non-Catholic, who know women need access to comprehensive healthcare, and that includes abortion."
Sinead Ahern, Choice Ireland spokeswoman, said: "It is effectively an instruction to the Irish Government that it must legislate for the X case. Any further delay will only result in yet more women having to take the state to court to vindicate their rights."
Later, in a statement the Government said it will examine the judgment carefully and consider what steps are required to implement it.Reuse content