Irish Supreme Court clears path for abortion referendum by ruling unborn children only have right to life

Vote faced delays if foetuses afforded more protections

Harriet Agerholm
Wednesday 07 March 2018 12:01
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Pro-choice campaigners will welcome the decision, since if the Supreme Court had upheld the High Court ruling it would have delayed the abortion referendum
Pro-choice campaigners will welcome the decision, since if the Supreme Court had upheld the High Court ruling it would have delayed the abortion referendum

Ireland’s highest court has ruled protections for an unborn child offered under the state’s constitution do not extend beyond the right to life.

The landmark decision, which was approved unanimously by seven senior judges, clears a path for a referendum on abortion in the summer.

A High Court previously ruled an unborn child was entitled to the same constitutional protections as a child.

Had the Supreme Court upheld the ruling, the referendum may have needed to be broadened to take in other elements of the constitution, which would have delayed the vote.

But Ireland’s Chief Justice Frank Clarke told the Supreme Court: “The present constitutional rights for the unborn are confined to the right to life guaranteed in article 40.3.3 [the Eighth Amendment].”

Citizens are due to be asked whether they want to remove the Eighth Amendment, a provision that renders abortion illegal other than in exceptional circumstances, and replace it with wording that would allow politicians to set Ireland’s abortion laws in the future.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said if the referendum backs a change to the constitution the Government will table legislation that allowing for unrestricted abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The High Court case related to an immigration dispute involving a Nigerian man who argued he should not be deported because the unborn child being carried by his Irish partner had multiple rights, including the right to the company of its father.

The High Court cited a number of grounds for finding in favour of the man, one being that the unborn child had rights extending beyond the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court judges dismissed the State appeal of the High Court ruling, but not because it agreed with the lower court’s position on the unborn.

Instead, they found that Ireland’s Justice Minister, in making a deportation ruling, should have considered rights that were conferred on the child once it was born.

So, while the deportation decision was upheld, the High Court’s specific ruling in relation to the rights of the unborn was not.

The Supreme Court ruling was delivered in the newly built court complex in Limerick — the first time the court has sat in the city.

Press Association contributed to this report

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