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Irish bill brings more clarity – and more heat – to abortion debate

The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill spells out the terms where women could obtain abortions, which are currently illegal. Ireland's prime minister vows it will be law by summer.

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There is some confusion over whether the penalty for procuring an abortion unlawfully, either by falsifying psychiatric symptoms or purchasing abortifacient pills from abroad, has been increased. The bill proposes a 14-year sentence, which pro-choice campaigners claim is a doubling of the sentencing guidelines.
Nonetheless, anti-abortion campaigners reacted with anger. One group, Youth Defence, said: "Enda Kenny would be forever known as the abortion taoiseach [prime minister]."

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"The draft heads state that it is not an offense to take action "as a result of which unborn human life is ended," an important distinction since current medical practice is to act to save the life of the baby where possible, and the death of the child is a side effect of treatment. "To end life deliberately is a different matter altogether and makes abortionists out of Irish doctors who are committed to saving lives," said the organization's Clare Molloy.

Independent senator Rónán Mullen described the move as "destructive and dangerous."

Opposition pro-choice lawmakers complained the bill didn't go far enough. Clare Daly, who has twice attempted to pass private member's bills on abortion, said women would continue to travel to Britain to have abortions.

Abortion panels

The independent socialist, currently in the process of forming a new political party, also slammed the provisions, saying: "We have the specter of a woman having to present her case to three doctors," adding that the second panel meant women would be faced with six doctors, a claim the government had denied last week.

Gerry Adams, leader of the left-republican party Sinn Féin, gave the bill a cautious welcome, saying pregnant women needed to be protected and doctors needed clarity on when they could perform an abortion. Sinn Féin's internal coalition of republican socialists and Catholic nationalists makes the issue a difficult one for the party.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which performs around 1,000 abortions annually for Irish women who travel to the UK, says the law will be meaningless in practice.

"From what I've seen of it, it looks as though it's an excellent civil service-style bureaucratic solution," she says. "A proposal has been put forward that will tick boxes for bureaucrats in Brussels, allow Irish politicians to say they're conforming with European regulations. It does absolutely nothing at all to improve the lives of the thousands of women who experience unwanted pregnancies."

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