After two decades of previous Governments ignoring the issue, this month the Irish parliament finally passed legislation which will remove the legal uncertainty for medical professionals carrying out abortions in Ireland in what are very limited circumstances. The enactment of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill into law will be, in my view, a very positive move for Irish women, and one that should not have taken so long to materialise.
The issue of Ireland’s abortion laws exploded on to the international stage earlier this year, due to the tragic death of Savita Halapannavar; a beautiful young woman who died in the early stages of pregnancy at Galway Hospital. Savita’s distraught husband Praveen told of how his wife had requested a termination when she learned her baby would not survive, but her request was denied.
It is important to stress that the death of Savita was completely unrelated to the Government’s actions on bringing forward new legislation to deal with this issue, as actions to address this issue were already in train. However, there is little doubt that the coverage that surrounded Savita’s death forced many within Ireland’s political system, and wider society, to confront their own views on how pregnant women are treated in this country.
Like so many other countries, Ireland has a fraught relationship with abortion. Thirty-one years ago, the Irish Constitution was amended to recognise the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother. The provision is something that is very important to Irish people, and it remains unchanged by the new legislation brought forward by the Government.
Back in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled in what became known as the X case, which involved a teenage girl who had been raped by a neighbour and wanted to travel to the UK to have an abortion because she was feeling suicidal. The Irish State tried to prevent her from doing so, but the Supreme Court ruled that a woman had a right to an abortion under the Irish Constitution if there was “a real and substantial risk” to her life, as opposed to her health. This included suicide. The decision of the Supreme Court is final, and yet successive Governments have failed to legislate to take account of this ruling for more than 20 years, leaving women and doctors in legal limbo. Two referendums to remove the reference to suicide in the X case ruling were subsequently rejected in 1992 and 2002.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that it was illegal for the Irish state on the one hand to have an explicit constitutional right to something but on the other hand to not define in clear law the rules regarding access. The Government of the day did very little to respond to this ruling, but the Fine Gael Government, of which I am a member and which came to power in March 2011, vowed that it would not be yet another successive Government to ignore this issue.
The Government agreed with the approach advocated by an Expert Group which it put in place that legislation and regulations were needed to deal with the European Court ruling. Our parliament’s Health Committee held extensive hearings on the matter after the draft legislation was published, with evidence from legal and medical experts. This was followed by hours of debate in both chambers of parliament. Irish politicians came under sustained and considerable pressure from interest groups on both sides of the argument. What we have come up with is, I believe, a balanced response to this sensitive and emotive issue.
Under the new legislation, women will be entitled to an abortion in Ireland if their life is in danger; for example due to a medical emergency or a terminal illness, or if the woman is feeling suicidal. Some have suggested that the inclusion of suicide in this legislation will lead to abortion on demand in Ireland. This is both disingenuous and insulting. Are these people really suggesting that Irish women will feign suicide to get an abortion? Two psychiatrists and an obstetrician will have to jointly agree that it is the only intervention that will save the woman’s life before an abortion will be granted. This is hardly something that will be considered an easy option.
What has been introduced by the Irish Government is a narrow piece of legislation, which deals with only one scenario: where there is a significant threat to the life of an expectant mother, and there is no alternative except for a medical intervention. This law does nothing to confer new rights on any individual and merely sets out what is already legal under the Supreme Court ruling. It a very important piece of legislation which I believe will ultimately save lives, rather than take them and will do away with the legal uncertainty that has faced women and doctors for years.