Three women filed a lawsuit in a European court against Ireland's abortion ban Wednesday, claiming the government violates the human rights of pregnant women by forcing them to travel abroad for abortions and denying them appropriate medical care at home.
The three women took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. A verdict is expected next year.
If they win, the women could force Ireland _ one of only a handful of European countries that still outlaws abortion _ to liberalize a system that inspires more than 7,000 women annually to travel to other European countries, chiefly England, for abortions.
But the Irish government fielded a high-powered legal team of constitutional lawyers and Attorney General Paul Gallagher to defend its health policies. They rejected the women's central claim that they couldn't receive proper medical care in Ireland before or following abortions abroad.
Gallagher told the judges that the women should have sued the government in Ireland first, exhausting legal options here before turning to the Strasbourg court, which casts a legally binding eye on human rights standards in all 47 nations of the Council of Europe.
Gallagher said an Irish court would have established whether the women's claims were factual. "If these issues are to come before this court, it should be on the basis of established facts," he told the judges.
The attorney general defended Ireland's abortion ban as reflecting "profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish society."
But the women's lawyers, who are supported by the Irish Family Planning Association, said taking a court case in Ireland would have been costly and futile, and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity.
The three women, who were not present at Wednesday's court hearing, were identified in court only by the letters A, B and C.
This is the first Irish case to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights since 1988, when Dublin gay activist David Norris sued the Irish government over its law defining homosexuality as a crime. Ireland legalized homosexuality in 1993.
In 1983, Ireland's voters inserted an explicit abortion ban into its constitution, reflecting the state's overriding Roman Catholic ethos of the day. Opinion polls over the past two decades have indicated growing support for legalizing abortion here.
Nonetheless, Irish abortion law has fallen into legal limbo since 1992, when a pregnant 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a neighbor successfully sued the government to permit her to travel to England for an abortion. The government tried to stop her, arguing it could not facilitate an illegal act, even though she was threatening to commit suicide.
The Irish Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that traveling to obtain abortions abroad was legal, and Ireland itself should provide abortions in cases where a continued pregnancy would threaten the life of the pregnant woman.
The women's lawyers argued Wednesday that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, Irish doctors continue to fear having anything to do with women who seek an abortion even on live-saving medical grounds. They contended that this makes the Irish medical system unsuitable for women seeking a foreign abortion for personal health reasons.