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Irish Proposal Would Codify Lawful Abortions When Woman's Life is at Risk

Irish Proposal Would Codify Lawful Abortions When Woman's Life is at Risk

May 2, 2013 —The Irish government this week unveiled a bill that would permit abortions when a woman's life is at risk, including from suicide, the New York Times reports. Approval of the bill is expected, according to the Times.

In announcing the proposal, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it "restates the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland," adding that "law on abortion in Ireland is not being changed" (Dalby, New York Times, 5/1).

The proposal comes after Irish officials in December announced they would clarify the country's stance on abortion amid public outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in October of last year after being denied an abortion at an Irish hospital. Although Halappanavar was miscarrying and in severe pain, the hospital refused to provide an abortion because a fetal heartbeat was detectable. She died of septicemia a week later.

Although Ireland's Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that abortion should be permitted when a woman's life is at risk, successive governments have failed to pass legislation to clarify the ruling. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Ireland to specify what the Supreme Court's ruling means in practice (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/19/12).

Kenny said the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill would give legal effect to the 1992 ruling (New York Times, 5/1). He hopes to pass the measure by July, but it first faces "lengthy debate and likely amendments" in the nation's parliament, according to the AP/Sacramento Bee (Pogatchnik, AP/Sacramento Bee, 5/1).

Approval Process for Life-Saving Abortions

Under the bill, a single physician could authorize an abortion in an emergency. However, if the threat to the woman's life is not imminent, two medical practitioners -- including one obstetrician or gynecologist -- would have to confirm that that the procedure is necessary. In cases of suicide risk, two psychiatrists and an obstetrician would have to approve the abortion (New York Times, 5/1). If the request is denied, the woman could appeal to a panel of three physicians, who would have to unanimously agree to approve the abortion.

Abortions would still be illegal in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities (McDonald, The Guardian, 4/30). Further, the bill would have no effect on the vast majority of the estimated 4,000 Irish women annually who travel to England to seek abortions, nor those who purchase abortion drugs over the Internet, the AP/Bee notes (AP/Sacramento Bee, 5/1).

Johanna Westeson -- regional director of the Center for Reproductive Rights -- said the "bill is really a minor step in the right direction, and creates no new rights." She called the suicide provision "outrageous and paternalistic" and added that Ireland's stance on abortion "with or without this new piece of legislation, with or without horrible provisions on suicidal women, is in absolute violation of international human rights norms on women's rights to health and dignity" (The Guardian, 4/30).