It's criminal for a doctor in Ireland to perform an abortion unless it occurs as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother.
However, the government had not enacted legislation to give certainty to doctors as to when terminations could be carried out and under what circumstances without breaking the law.
Tuesday, that all changed when Ireland’s government made the decision to introduce legislation to allow abortion where there is a risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide. The government also intends to decriminalize abortion in these circumstances.
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, James Reilly, the Irish health minister, said he was very conscious of the sensitivities around the issue.
"I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the Government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened," Dr Reilly said, according to the Irish Examiner
"We must fulfill our duty of care towards them. For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman’s life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."
The death of Savita Halappanavar
The move comes seven weeks after the death of Savita Halappanavar. Halappanavar, a 31-year old dentist originally from India, was 17 weeks pregnant when she developed back pain and tests revealed that she would lose her baby.
Despite her repeated pleas and constant pain over three days, doctors refused to perform a termination as they could still hear the fetus heartbeat and, according to reports, told her: “This is a Catholic country
Halappanavar’s condition rapidly deteriorated and she died after developing septicemia
four days after the death of her baby. Leaving her husband and family heartbroken and outraged.
They weren't alone. The case prompted public outcry
around the globe. Ireland's pro-choice movement branded her death “an outrage” and called for the Irish government to legalize abortion.
Now the new legislation will be drafted to comply with a landmark ruling in the European Court of Human Rights two years ago and a 1992 Irish Supreme Court decision in the “X case”.
The Irish ruling 20 years ago overturned a 1861 injunction preventing a 14-year girl, who had been raped and was suicidal because she could not get a legal abortion, from traveling to Britain to have her pregnancy terminated.
She later had a miscarriage. Her case did not lead to legal reform, but to confusion over when abortion was allowed in Ireland.
Abortion 'would not save a single life'
The proposed legislation to decriminalize abortion is expected to stoke furious debate in Ireland, which remains a staunchly Roman Catholic country.
There was no immediate reaction from members of the Irish bishops' conference, the National Catholic Reporter writes
. However, the Iona Institute, a religious think-tank, said including the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion in the legislation "would not save a single life".
"Irish law already allows the ending of a pregnancy when there is no other choice and there is a clear threat to the life of the mother," said Maria Steen, the institute's spokesman.
"A decision to include a threat of suicide as a ground for abortion would also be wrong in principle because it would authorize for the first time ever the deliberate and direct destruction of unborn human life in Ireland."
And Ronan Mullen, an independent Irish senator, accused the government of "double think" for condemning the deaths of children in the Sandy Hook shooting while showing "no concern for unborn children".
"I find it entirely appropriate that we would join in solidarity with the people, with the children who died in Connecticut," he said, the Telegraph
reported. "Let's be sincere about that. And let's not slip into a double-think either, however, where we forget a whole category of children in our own country."
In November Bishop William Murphy of Kerry warned that experience has shown that "if abortion is introduced, even on a very limited basis, it becomes widespread."
That's exactly what the Irish Council for Civil Liberties hopes for. "There is no good reason why the government should limit itself to the minimum action required to implement this one judgment," said Mark Kelly, the ICCL's director.
Pro-choice groups have also called for a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives the unborn an equal right to life as the mother.
Choice Ireland spokeswoman Stephanie Lord said it was “inhumane” that the amendment has not been repealed before now, the Irish Times
“There are 4,500 women that travel overseas for abortion services every year, and many more that order pills online to induce abortions at home,” she said.
There will be no free vote on this
The Irish parliament is set to debate the proposed legislation in early 2013.
Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that draft legislation would be published in the New Year with a timetable of having the legislation ready by Easter.
Several legislators from Kenny's Fine Gael party have indicated that they would oppose the legislation. To ensure the controversial law is passed, the government whip will be applied to MPs in the ruling Fine Gael party. “There will be no free vote on this,” said Kenny.