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03.20.07 - March 20, 2007 - The European Court of Human Rights held today, for the first time, that governments have a duty to establish effective mechanisms for ensuring that women have access to abortion where it is legal. The case centers on the tragic story of Alicja Tysiąc, a Polish woman who nearly went blind because she was forced to continue a pregnancy that threatened her health. Numerous doctors had advised Tysiąc that pregnancy and delivery posed the risk of irreversible eye damage, but they refused to issue a certificate authorizing an abortion. She was left with no choice but to carry her pregnancy to term, with devastating consequences.
The Center for Reproductive Rights, a nongovernmental organization that uses the law to advance reproductive rights globally, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The Center argued that under international law and national-level laws in Europe, states have a duty to establish effective procedures to ensure that women legally entitled to abortion are able to effectively exercise their right.
"There are thousands of women who are denied access to abortions they need and are legally entitled to in Poland every year," said Christina Zampas, Senior Legal Adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This decision means that the Polish government-and other governments in Europe-must take steps to make sure that women like Tysiąc don't needlessly suffer at the whim of doctors."
By law, Poland allows women to have abortions when their health is in danger. For Tysiąc, the state clearly failed to meet its legal obligation. The mother of three is now unable to work, wholly dependent on public assistance, and in need of constant care for day-to-day activities and for her children. The court awarded damages specifically in recognition of her "anguish and suffering."
"Today the European Court joined other international human rights bodies in sending a clear message to governments that where abortion is legal they have to make sure that women can get them," said Pardiss Kebriaei, Legal Adviser for International Litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
In the Center's case KL v. Peru, the U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled in 2005 that the rights of a 17-year old Peruvian woman had been violated when health officials denied her a therapeutic abortion. In March 2006, as a result of another case brought by the Center, the government of Mexico admitted that it had violated the rights of a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape and was denied an abortion.