|Other European countries, including Spain, are also traditionally conservative on abortion practices. [EPA]
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Ireland for stopping a Lithuanian cancer sufferer from terminating a pregnancy, in a blow to the predominantly Catholic country and its tough abortion laws.
In a final ruling, issued on Thursday, the rights court found Ireland had not respected the privacy and family rights of the Lithuanian woman, who was living in Ireland and feared a pregnancy could trigger a relapse of her cancer, in remission at the time.
The court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, ordered Ireland to pay $19,840 in damages to the woman, who was forced to travel to Britain, where the laws are more liberal, to terminate her pregnancy.
Terminating a pregnancy has long been a fraught issue in Ireland, where some of the toughest abortion laws in Europe allow terminations only when the mother's life is in danger. But just what constitutes a threat to the mother's life remains unclear.
The European court said Ireland had failed to ensure the Lithuanian woman's legal right to a termination.
"The Court concluded that neither the medical consultation nor litigation options, relied on by the Irish government, constituted effective and accessible procedures which allowed (her) to establish her right to a lawful abortion in Ireland," said a statement on the ruling.
But the court rejected appeals by two other women, both Irish, who also had travelled to Britain in 2005 for abortions.
One was an unemployed, former alcoholic who was suffering from depression, living in poverty and trying to recover custody of four children from foster care when she got pregnant. The other did not want to become a single parent and feared an extra-uterine pregnancy.
Veronique Chauveau, a partner for the international law firm CBBC in Paris, told Al Jazeera that this ruling does not necessarily give women access to abortion.
Rather, she said that it clarifies that the way that the way the women's constitutional rights have been implemented is wrong.
Therefore the ruling, said Chauveau, might act as an "incentive" for countries with law that mirror Ireland's to change their legislation.
"This clearly opens the door to a change of legislation in Ireland, but also in the parts of Europe where the laws are very restrictive, like Andorra, Malta, San Marino and obviously, Poland, Monaco and Liechtenstein," said Chauveau.
Ronan McCrea, a law lecturer at Britain's University of Reading, who has been following the case, said the Irish government had been procrastinating on reproductive rights ever since an early-1990s ruling that reopened the debate.
In the so-called "X" case of 1992 (Attorney General v. X), Ireland's Supreme Court overturned a ruling stopping a girl of 14 who had been raped by a neighbour from having an abortion.
That prompted two referendums that led to the right to information about abortion services available elsewhere, and to travel for an abortion.
"The government has been dragging its feet for decades and they're going to have to, now, legislate at some stage to clarify the meaning of the 'X' case and the anti-abortion amendment," said McCrea.
The 14-year-old girl was ultimately granted the right to have an abortion as she had threatened to commit suicide if forced to continue the pregnancy to full term, but she miscarried before an abortion could be carried out.
"It's inexcusable that they haven't legislated to clarify what this means."
Between 1980 and end-2009, at least 142,060 women in Ireland travelled for abortion services in England and Wales, a short ferry ride from Ireland, according to the Irish Family Planning Association.
Women in Catholic Poland also face strict laws. Official statistics show several hundred abortions performed annually but pro-choice campaigners estimate hundreds of thousands are performed underground or abroad, sometimes in poor conditions.