June 17, 2013 — The Irish government last week published a bill detailing when abortions are allowed to save a woman's life, the London Guardian reports (McDonald, London Guardian, 6/13).
Following a woman's death last year after she was denied an abortion at an Irish hospital, government officials vowed to pass legislation clarifying the country's abortion rules. 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, 4/9).
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill would maintain Ireland's ban on most abortions but clarify that the procedure is permitted to save a woman's life, including when there is a suicide risk. The bill lists 24 hospitals where abortions could be provided.
If enacted, the legislation would permit physicians to refuse to participate in abortion procedures, including in emergencies, if they have moral or religious objections. Health care providers who "intentionally destroy unborn human life" could face prison sentences of up to 14 years.
Results of Investigation Released
The legislation was released just hours before an Irish Health Service Executive report on the results of an investigation into the death of the woman, Savita Halappanavar (London Guardian, 6/13).
Although Halappanavar was miscarrying and in severe pain when she arrived at the hospital, the hospital refused to provide an abortion because a fetal heartbeat was detectable. She died of septicemia a week later (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/9).
The report found that a series of medical failures, compounded by health care providers' concerns about violating the law, contributed to Halappanavar's death.
"There was a lack of recognition of the gravity of the situation which led to passive approaches and delays in aggressive treatment," the report said, adding, "The investigation team is satisfied that concern about the law, whether clear or not, impacted on the exercise of clinical professional judgment" (Waterfield, London Telegraph, 6/13).