Irish lawmakers back measure to allow for abortion in limited cases

The proposed reform would clarify when abortion is legal in the country, and reinforce a prior Supreme Court ruling

By Katie McDonough
Published July 2, 2013 8:05PM (EDT)
      (AP/Shawn Pogatchnik)
(AP/Shawn Pogatchnik)

Ireland may soon ease restrictions on abortion in limited cases, as lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve a measure that would allow for the procedure to be performed when the life of the mother is at risk. The "Protection of Life During Pregnancy" bill faced strong objections from Catholic leaders (who called it a "legislative and political Trojan horse" intended to decriminalize abortion in all cases), but passed with a 138-24 majority.

Abortion is currently banned under all circumstances in Ireland, and a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that the procedure should be legal if necessary to save a woman's life has done little to clarify if and when a woman can receive a medically necessary abortion. This lack of clarity was cited in the report investigating the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia after being denied an abortion by her doctors. “The interpretation of the law related to lawful termination in Ireland, and particularly the lack of clear clinical guidelines and training, is considered to have been a material contributory factor in this regard,” the report said of Halappanavar's death.

As the Associated Press notes, similar measures to enforce the 1992 Supreme Court ruling have failed in the past:

Six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of the Supreme Court judgment, citing its suicide-threat rule as open to abuse. This left Irish hospitals uncertain and hesitant to provide any abortions and spurred many pregnant women in medical or psychological crises to seek abortions in neighboring England, where the practice has been legal since 1967.

Four anti-abortion lawmakers from Kenny's socially conservative Fine Gael party did vote against the bill, fewer than expected given the strong Catholic traditionalist wing in his party. They particularly opposed the bill's section authorizing abortions in cases where a panel of three doctors, including two psychiatrists, unanimously rules that a woman is likely to try to kill herself if denied one.

The proposed ban would be an improvement over current restrictions, advocates say, but does not go far enough to secure abortion access: “This legislation will only deal with a very small number of cases and will not change anything for the majority of women in this country," a representative from the National Women’s Council of Ireland recently told the Telegraph. "Ireland will still have one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. It will provide no solution to women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or where there is a risk to the health of the woman. Women in crisis pregnancies will still be forced to travel abroad for abortions."

The bill faces another vote next week.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Abortion Abortion Rights Catholics Ireland Religion Savita Halapannavar Women's Health Women's Rights