LONDON -- Spurred by the preventable death of a pregnant woman, the Irish government unveiled a proposed law Wednesday spelling out when abortions can be performed to save the life of the mother, a controversial move in a country that still outlaws most terminations.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the bill would merely clear up the confusion surrounding when emergency abortions are allowed. But critics accused the government of paving the way for easier access to abortion, which many in the heavily Roman Catholic country oppose.
Anticipating a bruising political battle, Kenny warned fellow lawmakers of his Fine Gael party that he expected them to vote for the measure, even if they disagreed with it.
“I do hope that we can bring everybody with us, on an issue that I know is sensitive,” Kenny told reporters, adding: “Conscientious objection … doesn’t absolve people from responsibility.”
The government was moved to act as a result of public outrage over the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in October. Halappanavar, who was about four months pregnant, died of blood poisoning after hospital officials in western Ireland refused to abort the fetus that she had begun to miscarry, saying they could still detect a heartbeat.
The death sparked street protests in Dublin. Kenny pledged to introduce legal guidelines on when an abortion can be performed to save a woman’s life, which has long been permitted in Ireland but which doctors often avoid doing for fear of being prosecuted because the rules are so vague.
“This bill restates the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland. The law on abortion in Ireland is not being changed,” Kenny said. “We are a compassionate people. This is about women; it is about saving lives, the life of the mother and the life of the unborn.”
The measure would authorize an abortion if two doctors agree that a continued pregnancy poses a “real and substantial” risk to the woman’s life. In an immediately life-threatening situation, one doctor would be allowed to act alone.
Of greater controversy is a provision regarding abortions for expectant mothers who say they will commit suicide over their unwanted pregnancies. In that case, three doctors would have to certify the threat is genuine.
Critics say that the provision could still be abused and that suicidal thoughts do not justify abortion.
“Talk of the legislation being ‘life-saving’ is simply dishonest,” Caroline Simons of the Pro-Life Campaign said in a statement Tuesday when a copy of the government’s bill began circulating. “There is no evidence that abortion ever helps women’s mental health and in fact it may damage women.”
The bill will go through committee and could be revised.
Among the most outspoken opponents of any liberalization of Ireland’s abortion regulations is the Catholic Church. Although the church’s influence has waned because of allegations of widespread sexual abuse in church-run institutions, its opposition to abortion continues to resonate with many Irish.
Thousands of Irishwomen are believed to travel each year to Britain to terminate their pregnancies. The Emerald Isle is one of the last member countries of the 27-nation European Union to maintain a near-blanket ban on abortion.