As the perennially contentious American abortion debate picks up during the 2012 presidential election season, some candidates are being pressed on where they stand and giving extreme responses.  For example, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is adamantly pro-life and believes that abortion should be illegal in practically all cases, even in the cases of rape or incest and even if it were the only way to preserve the health of the mother.  Hearing such views in the media regarding U.S. politicians’ stance on the subject begs the question of how the European Union, with its great diversity of cultures, has approached this sensitive issue.

Differing from U.S. law, where Roe v. Wade as re-affirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey held that a woman has a constitutionally protected right to a pre-viability abortion as a liberty right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any state from passing a law prohibiting abortions prior to fetal viability, the European Union does not have a similar overarching requirement concerning abortion which all EU member states must abide by.  For many member states, this does not pose a significant problem for women who seek abortions because most member states have more liberal abortion laws.  However, for women in Malta, where the practice is completely outlawed, and Ireland, where it is allowed only to preserve the life of the mother, some have argued that the practice should be more uniform throughout the European Union.  In 2002, the Women’s Rights Committee of the European Parliament adopted a report (see also explanation of adoption of resolution) that called for abortion to be made legal in all European countries, but this was met with contention, especially from member states with pre-dominantly Catholic populations.

However, the European Court of Human Rights has issued a number of rulings in the past couple of years that indicate the general position on a woman’s right to an abortion as a fundamental right amongst the individual European Union member states, albeit not the European Union as a whole.  The European Court of Human Rights is subsumed under the Council of Europe and is the judicial body that rules on individual applications alleging violations of the civil rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.  The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty adopted by all the EU member states, although, notably, this treaty has not been adopted by the European Union itself.

One decision that made international headlines in 2010 was the Court’s ruling that Ireland had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects one’s right to private and family life. (Case of A., B. and C. v. Ireland) The Court ruled that Ireland had violated its own Constitution when an Irish woman with a rare form of cancer was forced to travel outside of her country after she could not find an Irish doctor to advise her regarding whether continuing her treatment would harm the fetus or whether continuing the pregnancy could cause a re-lapse in her cancer.

The Court held that the woman’s inability to receive information regarding abortion violated the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s Constitution, which held that abortion was lawful in Ireland if there was “a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct to from the health, of the mother as a result of her pregnancy.”  While the European Union as an institution may not itself ever enter the abortion debate, given the backlash this has caused in the past, it seems that from looking at other treaties to which all EU member states are parties, the general tone in the EU, in spite of the more extreme abortion laws of a handful of the member states, is one that generally recognizes the woman’s right to reproductive autonomy, at least in extreme cases.