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Ireland: Modified Rules on Abortion Considered

(May 10, 2013) On May 1, 2013, Enda Kenny, the Prime Minister of Ireland, introduced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. If adopted, the bill would establish new rules governing the provision of abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life, but would not greatly alter <?Ireland's strict abortion laws. (Addison Morris, Ireland Government Introduced Abortion Legislation, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (May 1, 2013); General Scheme of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 (Apr. 30, 2013) [hereinafter Bill], MERRIONSTREET [Irish government website].)

The proposal for new legislation follows the death in October 2012 of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who was denied an abortion that might have saved her life. (Morris, supra; Woman Dies After Abortion Request “Refused” at Galway Hospital, BBC NEWS EUROPE (Nov. 14, 2012).) At that time, Irish leaders promised to work on clarifying the law on when abortions can be performed to save a life. (Morris, supra.)

The bill, which is divided into 20 headings, would give doctors clear standards for determining if an abortion is medically necessary. According to a statement by Kenny, the legal standard would be that abortions are allowed if “the doctors involved in the assessment process have unanimously certified that it is the only treatment that will save the woman’s life by averting the real and substantial risk to her life.” (Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny TD, Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, 1st May 2013 [hereinafter Speech], Department of the Taoiseach website.) Kenny went on to emphasize that abortion is an important and divisive issue and that the proposed law would retain the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland. (Id.)

The law would require that the determination that an abortion is necessary to save a life be made by two doctors. In cases in which the danger to the woman’s life is not from the possibility of suicide, at least one of the doctors who make the abortion determination must be an obstetrician or a gynecologist. If the danger is due to the possibility of suicide, the determination must be made by an obstetrician/gynecologist and two psychiatrists. (Bill, Headings 2 & 4, supra.)

The bill states that it is an offense to take actions with the intent of destroying “unborn human life” and that anyone convicted of this offense may be sentenced to a fine, imprisonment for up to 14 years, or both. (Id., Heading 19.) According to the explanatory notes following this section of the bill, the penalty may be imposed on a pregnant woman or on an abortion provider. The notes suggest that it would “be inequitable to have, as a matter of course, a significant penalty for the person performing a termination but none at all for the woman undergoing the procedure.” (Id., Eplanatory Notes.)

The bill has met with some disapproval from both those who support abortion rights and those who oppose them. Clare Daly, a legislator from theUnited Left Alliance, stated that while she is pleased that the legislation is being considered, it “is the absolute minimum. The clear intention is to make it so restrictive that most women who will be affected will not even bother” and will travel to Great Britain to obtain abortions. (Laura Smith-Spark & Peter Taggart, Ireland’s Government Puts Forward Draft Abortion Bill, CNN (May 1, 2013).)

On the other side of the abortion debate, the Pro Life Campaign called the legislation dangerous. According to Caroline Simons, a legal consultant to that organization, “[f]or the first time an Irish government is proposing to introduce a law that provides for the direct intentional targeting of the life of the unborn child.” (Id.)

In his comments on the bill, Kenny expressed the difficulties entailed in drafting legislation that would be acceptable to everyone in Ireland. He described abortion as “an issue that is complex and sensitive, about which many Irish people have sincere and strongly held views. 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.” (Speech, supra.)