Dublin: Irish lawmakers on Friday approved abortion for the first time — legalising the practice in limited cases where the woman’s life is at risk — as the predominantly Catholic nation took its first legislative step away from an outright ban.
The change was prompted by the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31, last October. Halappanavar, an Indian dentist in Ireland, was denied a life-saving abortion when she was found to be miscarrying. She died a week later from blood poisoning.
The death highlighted Ireland’s failure for two decades to draft abortion legislation in support of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that life-saving abortions, including to prevent suicides, should be legal in Ireland.
Exhausted legislators voted for ‘The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill’ 127 to 31 in the early hours of Friday after two days of marathon debate in parliament. It will now go to a vote in the upper house, where Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s government has a majority.
Outside the parliament gates, abortion rights activists cheered as they watched the result on their smartphones. It capped a gruelling debate that locked lawmakers in argument from Wednesday morning to 5 am Thursday and, after a pause for sleep, through midnight Friday.
The bill allows for abortion in circumstances where doctors certify there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, as opposed to a risk to her health. It also permits a termination when one obstetrician and two psychiatrists unanimously agree that an expectant mother is a suicide risk.
The “suicide clause” in particular has divided society, with some anti-termination lawmakers warning that it will lead to a more liberal abortion regime in Ireland. The bill follows a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ireland failed to implement the constitutional right to abortion where a woman’s life is at risk.
Catholic conservatives, meanwhile, vowed to drive PM Kenny’s centrist Fine Gael party from power for violating its 2011 campaign pledge not to legislate on abortion.
They say the bill will allow the intentional killing of the unborn for the first time in the Republic of Ireland. They consider it not just a religious issue but a human rights one as they believe that in any pregnancy the mother and foetus have equal rights to life.
Recently released figures show that 3,982 Irish women travelled to England, where abortion has been legal since 1967, for termination of pregnancy last year, while many hundreds more have performed their own at home using pills.