Ireland : an aborted debate

Maxence Salendre
11 Juillet 2013

The new draft of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill introduced by Fine Gael (centre-right, currently in a coalition government with Labour) and expected to pass next week continues to fuel the heated debate on abortion in Ireland.

Following the death of 31 year-old Savita Halappanavar in October 2012 due to doctors’ hesitation to remove the foetus after she suffered a miscarriage in Galway University Hospital, emotion around the bill remains at its climax. Indeed, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, abortion currently remains illegal in Ireland and liable to imprisonment.

Since 1922 and the “X case” which established a “right to travel” enabling Irish women to seek abortion outside Ireland and not be prosecuted on their return, the position of Irish political parties on abortion have never mirrored women’s interests. The 1968 constitutional ban on abortion forced the government to defend the life of the mother and the unborn equally. A 1992 Supreme Court decision made abortion legal if doctors deem it essential to safeguard the life of the woman. However, the vagueness of this decision left doctors unsure and many women were sent to the UK to abort. The opening of an abortion clinic in Northern Ireland last October already triggered massive protests from anti-abortion activists.

The proposed Bill would in fact introduce a new amendment stating that “medical practitioners examining a pregnant woman must have regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable when forming a “reasonable opinion” in good faith about her condition. It is on the basis of such a “reasonable opinion” that a decision can be made to terminate the pregnancy if that is the only action that can avert a real and substantial risk to the woman’s life from a physical illness, a medical emergency or suicide”. This amendment would therefore make abortion legal in the event a woman’s life is in danger and would also protect medical staff from court prosecutions.

Introduced by centre-right party Fine Gael, buoyed by Taoiseach (equivalent to Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, its Labour coalition ally and supported by a majority of Irish people (79% for - 16% against according to an Irish Times opinion poll), the Bill still attracted 35,000 in a protest march in Dublin on Saturday.

The Irish Catholic Church compared the Bill to a “Trojan Horse” as it could lead to open abortion. Despite recent revelations concerning paedophilia in its ranks, the Church’s influence remains strong in a 3.8 million Catholics country (over a total population of 4.5 million). The debate is therefore particularly heated and constitutes a thorny issue for Irish politicians as recent developments show. While Fine Gael Teachtaí Dála (TDs – Irish equivalent to MPs) generally supported the Bill, some dissidents recently braved the party Whip and declared they would not vote it. This is notably the case of the Minister of State for European Affairs who led the rebellion against the Taoiseach and did so despite the expected conclusions from the European Court of Human Rights on the Irish abortion case.

In an attempt to control party dissidents, Fine Gael is now trying to introduce more pro-life amendments. On the opposition side, even though Fianna Fáil (centre-right) leader said he would support the Bill, 13 out of 19 TDs also braved the party Whip and voted against it in the hope to surf on the protest wave. Usually bogged down in clientelism, local lobbies and interests promotion, Irish politics once again risks tearing the abortion bill into pieces leaving little optimism for a progressive piece of legislation which would finally support women’ rights to choose. For once, let us now rejoice in hope that politics is not always as dirty as it seems.