Ireland Abortion Bill: Europe's Biggest Holdout On Abortion Might Be Ready to Give In

Perhaps the most contentious piece of legislation in recent years is currently making its way through the Irish Parliament. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was drawn up in response to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012, an Indian dentist who lost her life when repeated requests to abort her unviable fetus were turned down by hospital staff at University Hospital, Galway, in Ireland. The hospital told Halappanavar that the fetus was not viable but that an abortion could not be performed under Irish law because the fetus’s heart was still beating. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicemia which led to multiple organ failure and her death. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding Ms Halappanavar’s death and the resultant impetus to provide legal clarity in this area, this draft bill was not a hasty knee-jerk reaction. For 20 years, Irish lawmakers had failed to pass legislation required to implement a Supreme Court ruling which, in theory, allowed for legal terminations under restricted circumstances. Thus, a practical ban on abortion has remained in place despite this ruling, leaving medical practitioners in legal limbo fearing potential indictment for carrying out a termination, even where the life of the mother is in danger.  

The bill is currently under debate in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) where a coalition government comprised of center-right Fine Gael and left-of-center Labour has opted against a "free vote" — meaning party members who vote against the bill will lose the party whip. The controversial legislation provides a legal framework for abortion in cases where there is a threat to the life of the pregnant woman, including, most controversially, a threat of suicide. Many politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have taken issue with this particular clause, notably prominent female Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, who has strongly criticized the bill despite the fact that it is being spearheaded by her own party, Fine Gael. She spoke on Monday of the resentment she felt towards the "groupthink" mentality that she believes dominates the debate. She said it seemed to her that "if you do not succumb to the accepted view that abortion is a liberal issue, a women’s rights issue, a cornerstone of the progressive agenda, then you are deemed to be a backward, illiberal … fundamentalist who belongs to a different era." She also argued that the provision for suicidal intent has the potential "to normalize suicidal ideation by enshrining suicide on our statute book for the first time." Despite these criticisms, Creighton voted in favor of the bill on Tuesday night, where the legislation passed the first Dáil reading by 138 to 24.

The taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, Enda Kenny, issued a stern defense of the legislation in his own speech to the Dáil, saying it was not possible to remove the suicide clause. He also rejected demands for a time limit to be applied to when a termination can take place. "To those who fear that this bill is the first step towards a liberal abortion regime in Ireland, I say clearly that this extremely restrictive bill is the only proposal that will be brought forward by this government on this issue." The suggestion that this extremely restrictive legal framework (which does not provide for abortion in circumstances of rape or incest) will open the floodgates to a more liberal abortion regime in Ireland has lingered as a constant criticism among those who oppose the bill. However, to echo the sentiments of Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Eamon Gilmore, the proposed bill is about trusting women when it comes to their medical care and providing for a very basic human right. To suggest that a woman in a crisis pregnancy could feign suicidal intent for the purpose of a termination is not only offensive to women but reduces them to a manipulative stereotype.

Meanwhile, a survey of Irish students conducted by campus.ie has shown that 40% believe abortion should be freely available in Ireland. The proposed legislation would for the first time sanction abortion, however only under restricted circumstances. Not only does the present Irish government face pressure to update law on this issue domestically, as the results of the above mentioned survey suggest, but it also faces pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2012 ruled that its failure to clarify when an abortion is legal for women whose life is at risk breached their human rights. Abortion is a hugely contentious issue in Ireland that has divided the nation for 30 years and prompted five constitutional referenda in the past 30 years. It is one of only two EU countries – the other being Malta – where women cannot always be guaranteed an abortion even when their lives are endangered by pregnancy, suicide, or medical conditions. Since successive Irish governments have failed in their duty to provide necessary clarity on how women’s rights of access to abortion are protected, leaving women in Ireland in a very vulnerable position, the present Bill, while not perfect, is a necessary step in the right direction.