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Ireland defends abortion law in European court

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Ireland defended its strict abortion law at the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday, countering a legal challenge by three women who said it endangered their health and violated their rights.

The women, two Irish and one Lithuanian living in Ireland, had travelled to Britain to have abortions, as largely Catholic Ireland allows the procedure only when the mother’s life is in danger.

They argued that they had to terminate their pregnancies due to medical and social problems, and that being forced to travel abroad for abortions meant submitting to inhumane treatment which violated their right to privacy. They also said the law constituted gender-based discrimination.

The Irish government’s attorney general, Paul Gallagher, said the legal action undermined the court’s principles.

“For 50 years, this court has recognised the diversity of cultures and traditions in Europe,” he said. “It has recognised that a foetus has a right to protection by the Convention (of Human Rights).”

He also reminded the court that Ireland had made maintaining the abortion law a condition for holding a second referendum on the European Union’s reform accord, the Lisbon Treaty, and had been granted appropriate guarantees by its EU partners.

About a dozen anti-abortion activists protested outside the courthouse, waving placards saying “Hands off Ireland.”

Another government adviser, Donal O’Donnel, said the Irish laws protected the right to life, which was guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights. “When does life begin? There is no consensus on that,” he said.

The petitioners’ lawyer, Julie Kay, laid out the reasons that led her clients to terminate their pregnancies.

One of the women was an unemployed long-term alcoholic who lived beneath the poverty line and was trying to regain custody of her four children when she became pregnant.

Another was at risk of an extra-uterine pregnancy while the third was recovering from cancer and feared a relapse.

“The petitioners are not asking this court to determine when life begins. They are asking for their rights to be protected,” the lawyer said.

The Irish Family Planning Association has estimated that 6,000 Irish women travel every year to Britain, which has less strict laws, for an abortion.

The court is expected to deliver a verdict within a few months. In 2007, it ordered Poland to pay compensation to a woman who nearly went blind after being denied an abortion.

Writing by Sophie Hardach; editing by David Stamp