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.

Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters
Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny arrives to Sao Bento palace in Lisbon for a meeting with his Portuguese counterpart Pedro Passos Coelho Monday. The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill will become law by the summer, says Prime Minister Kenny, but for now it has been referred to the parliament's health committee – and is also being scrutinized by legal, medical, and political groups outside parliament.

It came half a day late, but late last night the Irish government finally published the "heads of bill" outlining its proposed abortion legislation – though it did little to stem arguments about the legality and morality of abortion in Ireland, where the practice has been outlawed.

The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill will become law by the summer, says Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, but for now it has been referred to the parliament's health committee – and is also being scrutinized by legal, medical, and political groups outside parliament.

As reported in The Christian Science Monitor Monday, the legislation comes days, weeks, months or even decades late, depending on when you count from. The bill follows a 1992 judgment by the Irish Supreme Court that said women must be able to obtain abortions if their life is threatened in pregnancy, including by risk of suicide.

This issue of providing an abortion to a woman deemed suicidal has divided Ireland's parliament, leaving both the leading party in government, Fine Gael, and leading opposition party Fianna Fáil riven.

The bill as published is designed to assuage the fears of anti-abortion lawmakers who fear widespread abortion on Irish shores. Speaking in parliament today, Mr. Kenny said: "There is no question or intent in any circumstances for an opening for, as they say, for abortion on demand in this country," going on to restate his promise to enact the law by summer.

At present, abortion is outlawed under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, while the eighth amendment to the Constitution, dating from 1983, says the right to life of the unborn is equal to that of the pregnant woman.

The proposed law states that in cases of a “real and substantial” risk to the life of the woman due to risk of suicide, three consultant doctors, one obstetrician and two psychiatrists, must unanimously certify the need for a termination. If a unanimously decision is not agreed upon, a second panel comprising three more doctors will have to be convened.

The high threshold appears to have eased the concerns of some government backbenchers. Brian Walsh, who previously said he would vote against the bill, is meeting with Mr. Kenny to discuss the legislation. Even the name of the bill has been changed – previously it was called the Protection of Maternal Life Bill – apparently to appease anti-abortion opinion.

What is the penalty for breaking the law?

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]."

"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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