Meet Julie - the Wealthy, Privileged but Childless US Lawyer Fighting for Abortion to Be Legalised in Ireland; Revealed: The Mastermind Behind This Week's European Court of Human Rights Ruling That Threatens to Reopen the Country's Bitterest Moral Issue

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Byline: Larissa Nolan

IT WAS a landmark day for Ireland, one that may have signalled the beginning of the end for Ireland's unique stance on the nation's most emotive and controversial issue: abortion.

It nudged us towards new legislation that will see terminations made legal in certain circumstances in this country for the first time.

And behind this enormously consequential move stood the petite figure of one Julie F Kay, whom history may well remember as the woman ultimately responsible for legalising abortion in Ireland.

For it is her zealous and impassioned work - on behalf of three Irish-based women who found themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy - that led to the milestone decision at the European Court of Human Rights.

It was Miss Kay who fought for the women in a battle to overturn Ireland's restrictive abortion laws - laws she has previously described as 'the jewel in the crown of the pro-life movement'.

She believes our 'myopic' politicians need to be 'enlightened' and has, in scholarly articles, urged pro-choice voters to express their views in votes.

So she was front and centre last week at the European Court of Human Rights to hear the verdict on three test cases she had brought in a challenge to Irish abortion law, which was affirmed by a closefought referendum in 2002. The Constitution states that abortion is illegal, but court cases have established the principle that one can be performed if a mother's life is threatened by a pregnancy.

Two of this week's test cases were dismissed by the ECHR, which upheld the basic right of Ireland to determine its own rules on what are considered moral issues.

But in what was hailed as a significant advance for the pro-choice cause, the court agreed that, in one of the cases - that of cancer sufferer Miss C - Ireland's position on abortion breached her human rights. In effect, the court said that Ireland needed to set out precisely the conditions under which a woman can have an abortion.

The slight, blonde lawyer with more than a hint of iron behind her deep-set grey eyes was victorious.

Yet, surprisingly, Miss Kay is not someone who grew up here and has fought from within to change the law. In fact, she is a highly educated, highly privileged American, who grew up in a leafy Boston enclave and has dedicated much of her life to tackling anti-abortionists wherever she can find them. Though she is married, she has no children - a fact her supporters will say is irrelevant but that her opponents will doubtless claim makes it impossible for her to see things from the same viewpoint as many of them.

Like Ally McBeal, the television lawyer she somewhat resembles, Miss Kay is also a Bostonian - from Newton, just outside the Massachusetts capital.

The 42-year-old's husband is a highly successful fellow attorney, and the couple live in a [euro]1.8m apartment in the family neighbourhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn, one of the most sought-after residential districts of New York. It is certainly a far cry from the women whose cases she took before the ECHR. Two of them said in their cases that they found themselves, due to their circumstances or background, facing what they saw as an unbearable struggle as a single parent or unable to cope with a pregnancy on top of alcoholism - not the sort of problem Miss Kay is ever likely to face personally.

From a privileged background, the well-to-do Miss Kay is part of the American east-coast's intellectual elite, with an impressive pedigree that spans the world of arts, business, law and medicine. She describes herself as a 'writer and attorney'. Husband Tom Fergus specialises in defending hospitals and doctors who have been sued. The couple are heavily involved in their local community and are involved in charity and conservation work there.

Miss Kay's father is Stephen B Kay, a senior director of Goldman-Sachs who has been associated with the world-famous investment bankers since 1965. …