IRELAND unveiled a long-awaited bill yesterday that lays down new rules governing when life-saving abortions can be performed – a point of potentially lethal confusion for women in a country that outlaws terminations.
Prime minister Enda Kenny, speaking to reporters after his government published the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, said he hoped the coming weeks of debate would not turn bitter. But he warned Catholic conservatives in his own party to back the bill or be expelled.
“I do hope that we can bring everybody with us, on an issue that I know is sensitive,” said Mr Kenny, who added that his government was seeking only “a clarification of rights within existing law”.
Mr Kenny said the bill would set a maximum 14-year prison sentence for anyone involved in an illegal abortion, whether doctor or patient. The current law, dating to 1861, sets the maximum penalty at life.
Mr Kenny’s government took action following the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar last year from blood poisoning, after she was refused a termination because her dying foetus still had a heartbeat. The bill, if passed, would change nothing for the vast majority of an estimated 4,000 Irish women who travel each year for abortions in the UK, nor those who order miscarriage-inducing drugs over the internet.
Anti-abortion activists, including many in Mr Kenny’s Fine Gael party, protest that the proposed law could become a platform for eventual wider access to abortion in Ireland. Malta is the only other European Union country that bans it.
Activists particularly oppose the bill’s provisions for women who threaten to kill themselves if they are denied a termination. The bill specifies that three doctors – the woman’s obstetrician and two psychologists – must determine that the suicide risk is substantial.
Most other life-saving abortions would require certification by two doctors, or just one in emergency cases.
The bill faces lengthy debate and likely amendments. Mr Kenny wants it passed by July.
During parliamentary debate, left-wing opposition MPs who want broader access to abortion accused Mr Kenny of hypocrisy.
“What you’ve presented is the absolute minimum,” MP Clare Daly told the prime minister.
“The clear intention is to make it so restrictive that most women will not even bother. Instead they’ll continue to make the journey to Britain so that you can continue to pretend that there’s no Irish abortion.”
Ireland’s abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that abortions should be legal when doctors deem it necessary to save the woman’s life. The judges defined a credible suicide threat as one reasonable ground.
That ruling was made in the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a family friend. After she threatened suicide, the Supreme Court ruled she should receive an abortion in Ireland. The girl miscarried.
While the ruling had the power of law, a series of governments refused to enact supporting legislation, fearful of a voter backlash in a country that is more than 80 per cent Catholic.