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Ireland publishes bill on life-saving abortions

Abortirights protesters holding pictures SavitHalappanavar as they march through central DublNovember 2012. | AP file photo

Abortion rights protesters holding pictures of Savita Halappanavar as they march through central Dublin in November 2012. | AP file photo

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DUBLIN — Ireland’s government unveiled a long-awaited bill Wednesday that lays down new rules explaining when life-saving abortions can be performed, a point of potentially lethal confusion for women in a country that outlaws the practice.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, speaking to reporters after his government published the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, said he hoped the coming weeks of debate would not turn bitter. But he warned Catholic conservatives within his own party that they must back the bill or be expelled.

“I do hope that we can bring everybody with us, on an issue that I know is sensitive,” said Kenny, who stressed that his 2-year-old government was seeking no change to abortion law, only “a clarification of rights within existing law.” He said the law would emphasize that anyone involved in an illegal abortion, whether doctor or patient, could face a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

Kenny’s government took action following the death of a woman last year from blood poisoning after she was refused a termination because her dying fetus still had a heartbeat.

Anti-abortion activists, including many in Kenny’s own Fine Gael party, warn that the proposed law could become a platform for eventual wider access to abortion in Ireland, one of only two European Union countries that still bans it, alongside Malta.

They particularly oppose the bill’s provision that grants abortions to women who threaten to kill themselves if they are denied a termination. The bill specifies that three doctors — the woman’s obstetrician and two psychologists — must determine that the suicide risk is substantial. If denied, the woman would have a right of appeal to a panel of three other doctors.

The bill, published after weeks of government infighting on its terms, faces lengthy debate and likely amendment in the parliament’s Health and Children Committee. Kenny wants it passed by July.

Ireland’s abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that abortions should be legal in Ireland when deemed necessary by doctors to save the life of the woman. Critically, the judges defined a credible suicide threat as one reasonable ground.

That ruling was made in the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped and who was blocked by the government from traveling to neighboring England, where thousands of Irish women receive abortions each year. The girl threatened to kill herself, and miscarried while the case was still being fought in the Supreme Court. It ruled that she should have received an abortion in Ireland.

While the ruling had the power of law in Ireland, a series of governments refused to draft supporting legislation, fearful of a voter backlash in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic.

Obstetricians throughout have complained they need a clear law, lest they find themselves targeted by lawsuits or even criminal charges for murder. They have quietly performed dozens of abortions annually to treat life-threatening cases, but the system’s slowness and legal uncertainty have encouraged many pregnant women at risk to travel instead to England, an hour’s plane flight away.

It was the death of 31-year-old Indian woman Savita Halappanavar that made the current government act. Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, died from blood poisoning one week after being admitted to a hospital at the start of a miscarriage. As she experienced worsening pain and health, doctors rejected pleas to abort the fetus, citing its heartbeat. Subsequent investigations have determined that by the time the fetus died, it was already too late to save the woman.

The coroner in the case called on the government to create clear rules authorizing life-saving abortions, but also stressed that hospital staff should have detected the evidence of blood poisoning much sooner and might have aborted the fetus under the existing Supreme Court judgment.

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Online:

Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, http://bit.ly/17x26dq



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