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Latest update : 2013-07-22

Parliament passes abortion legislation after explosive debate

© Hervé Amoric

Irish lawmakers recently passed a bill clarifying the legislation on abortion. Prior to the bill being adopted, thousands took to the streets of Ireland, hoping to influence politicians on both sides of the debate. Outside parliament, pro and anti-abortion activists faced each other down, chanting slogans and waving placards. Our Dublin correspondent reports.

Twenty-one years ago, the Irish people voted in a referendum that allowed for abortions to be carried out in very limited cases, when there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother. But the Irish constitution protects equally the rights of the “unborn” and the rights of the mother.

"For 21 years, women have had this theoretical right to terminate their pregnancies if there is a threat to their lives, but there has been no legislation, so for doctors and women, they have had no certainty, and if they end up in these very difficult situations, there was no guarantee that they will have the treatment that they need," Sinead Ahern, Choice Ireland’s spokeswoman, told France 24.

"This legislation protects women and it protects doctors to make any intervention that is necessary to save a woman’s life," she added.

Abortion is probably the most emotive and divisive subject in Ireland. As the Irish Prime Minister introduced the bill, he came under serious pressure personally from anti-abortion activists. Enda Kenny told the Dail (Irish National Assembly) that he had been “branded a murderer” who risked having “the death of 20 million babies” on his soul.

"I’m getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood," Mr Kenny said.

A rally by pro-life activists. © Hervé Amoric

The death of a young pregnant dentist, Savita Halappanavar, made clarifying the law a priority. Last October, she was admitted to hospital in Galway, miscarrying and seriously ill. She died there days later having been refused an abortion. The family later claimed that medical staff were confused about the exact legal position.

A month after Savita's death, Laura Servant Charlier, a young French woman, was admitted to hospital, in Dublin, with all the clinical signs of a pregnancy outside the womb. 

"In all other EU countries, women who have ectopic pregnancies get surgery within 48 hours. I had to wait over a week,” Ms Servant Charlier, who worked as an insurance agent in Ireland, told France 24. She said she was shocked by the way she was treated in hospital.

"When we’re talking about treatment or anything to do with abortion in Irish hospitals, the situation is surreal, they seem completely paranoid about the issue," she added. She said she had days of anxiety and distress before doctors terminated the pregnancy.

The gap between church and state has rarely been wider than over this issue. Bishops campaigned against the bill. They are particularly concerned that an abortion will be allowed in cases when a woman is found to be suicidal.

"The Christian message is a message which respects life, it respects every human life, from the moment of conception, to the moment of natural death and at every moment in between," Diarmuid Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, told his arch-diocese.

The Catholic Church is still influential in Ireland. On one Saturday earlier this month, over 40, 000 people took to the streets to protest against the bill, mainly because of the suicide clause.

"The main reason is because suicide is being included as a ground for abortion, and people know that in every other country where suicide, or mental health is a ground, that’s the one that’s abused. 98% of abortions in the UK are on mental health grounds," Caroline Simons, a lawyer and representative of the Pro-Life Campaign, argued.

For the same reason, the young Irish Minister for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton told the Irish parliament that she could not support a clause which is "essentially built on sand". She voted against the bill, was expelled from her parliamentary party and had to resign from government.

The bill was finally voted in after a marathon debate. But when the new law takes effect, abortion will still be very tightly controlled in Ireland.

"For a small number of Irish women, and for a small number of situations facing Irish doctors, there is now an absolute certainty that an abortion will be permissible,"Simon Mills, a lawyer and medical doctor, explained.

However, "for the vast majority of Irish women who seek an abortion, because the law is not in any sense a liberal abortion law, they will continue to travel to the United Kingdom or to other jurisdictions for terminations of pregnancy," Dr Mills added.

The abortion debate in Ireland is far from over and another referendum on the issue cannot be ruled out in the future.

By Hervé AMORIC

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