The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday condemned Ireland for obliging a woman suffering from cancer and who feared a pregnancy would worsen her health to have an abortion abroad.

The court in a definitive ruling awarded 15,000 euros in damages to the complainant, a Lithuanian living in Ireland, saying her rights to privacy and family life had been violated.

But it dismissed the plea of two Irish women who like the first had to travel to Britain to end their pregnancies because of Irish law making abortion a criminal offence if there was no risk to the life of the mother.

The court found existing Irish procedures effectively made it impossible for the Lithuanian complainant to establish this risk and avoid prosecution under a 150-year-old law providing for life imprisonment for abortion.

The woman, in remission from cancer and unaware that she was pregnant, had undergone check-ups that were not advised during pregnancy.

"Once she discovered she was pregnant, she believed that there was a risk that her pregnancy would cause a relapse of the cancer and was thus concerned for her health and life," the court said.

"She was also concerned about a risk to the foetus if she continued to term and claimed she could not obtain clear advice. She therefore decided to have an abortion in England."

"Although she believed her pregnancy put her life at risk, there was no law or procedure through which she could have that, and -- as a result - her right to an abortion in Ireland, established," the court said.

"It was evident that the criminal provisions of the 1861 Act constituted a significant chilling factor for women and doctors as they both ran a risk of a serious criminal conviction and imprisonment if an initial doctor?s opinion that abortion was an option as it posed a risk to the woman?s health was later found to be against the Irish Constitution," it said.

Recourse to the Irish courts was also ineffective, as the constitutional courts were not appropriate for the primary determination of whether a woman qualified for a lawful abortion.

In the case of the other two, the court ruled that while most Council of Europe member countries had fewer restrictions on abortion, the question of when life began came within an individual state's margin of appreciation.

It concluded that the existing prohibition on abortion in Ireland generally struck a fair balance between the right to respect of private life and the rights invoked on behalf of the unborn.

The court referred to "the right to travel abroad to obtain an abortion and to appropriate pre- and post-abortion medical care in Ireland, as well as to the fact that the impugned prohibition in Ireland on abortion for health or well-being reasons was based on the profound moral values of the Irish people in respect of the right to life of the unborn."

One of the two was unmarried, unemployed and living in poverty, with four children all of whom had been placed in foster care.

A former alcoholic struggling with depression, she decided to have an abortion to avoid jeopardising her chances of reuniting her family. She paid for it in a private clinic in Britain with cash borrowed from a money lender.

The second was not prepared to become a single parent. While initially she feared an ectopic pregnancy, she was aware that it was not prior to travelling to Britain for an abortion.

The court found the psychological and physical burden undoubtedly suffered by all three women as a result of their travelling abroad for an abortion had not been sufficiently grave to represent inhuman or degrading treatment.