The world’s major media outlets have misreported the effect of today’s European Court of Human Rights ruling on Ireland’s abortion laws, resulting in much confusion online and on the airwaves:
Confusion about substance of the ruling
BBC’s Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson said: “Ireland is now under pressure to do what successive Irish governments have avoided doing for almost 20 years – alter its abortion laws.”
That’s misleading. In fact, the ruling implies no need for Ireland to change the substance of its abortion laws. The ECHR only says that Ireland should take steps to create an adjudicatory process to help arbitrate those (unchanged) laws. Senator, lawyer and pro-abortion advocate Ivana Bacik said that “this judgment does not change the substance of Irish law.”
CNN also threw up a misleading headline: “Court condemns Irish ban on abortion”
But the “ban” itself was not condemned. The ECHR did not condemn Irish laws restricting abortion, but criticized the lack of procedures to enable people to avail of the existing laws. CNN went on to contradict its own headline, saying: “[The court] did not, however, recommend a change to Irish law, which prohibits abortion in all cases.”
RTE ran with: “Human rights violated by abortion ban”
Again, not exactly. The ECHR did not rule that Ireland’s “ban” violated human rights. In fact, the court specifically ruled that Ireland’s abortion laws are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It merely ruled that the absence of proper procedures to adjudicate when an abortion may be legally obtained was a contravention of the charter.
Confusion about Direct Effect
RTE went on to nuance things somewhat, although the article does seem to imply that RTE thinks that ECHR rulings are directly effective in Ireland, which they are not. RTE says “As the rulings of the court are binding, it is now likely the Government will have to implement a woman’s right to an abortion if her life is at risk.”
Another story this morning which also implied that RTE misunderstood the role and nature of the ECHR and described its decisions as “binding” on Ireland. The article has since disappeared from its site.
In Britain, the High Court has held that when faced with conflicting authorities from the European Court of Human Rights and the British House of Lords (now called the Supreme Court), the House of Lords position takes precedence.
It is in fact for the Irish state to decide how to change its laws to comply with its Treaty law obligations under the European Charter on Human Rights. The court’s ruling is not directly effective in Ireland.
For more detail, see article explaining the ECHR ruling: What the ECHR’s ruling on abortion actually says