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Ireland announces abortion law reforms, leaving no one satisfied

The new legislation is meant to clarify Ireland’s stance on abortion when the mother’s health is at risk, but antiabortion groups say it goes too far, and abortion-rights groups not far enough.

Ireland took a step today toward loosening its strict antiabortion regime, as the government announced legislation to legalize abortion in limited circumstances. But a battle lies ahead, as both abortion-rights and antiabortion groups appear dissatisfied with the government’s new prescription.

A statement issued after a meeting of ministers today announced legislation and medical-legal guidance allowing for the provision of abortion when a woman’s life is at risk in pregnancy. The statement also said criminal law would be amended. At present, abortion is outlawed under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act. A bill will be published in the New Year, and, after being considered by parliamentary committee, will be put to a vote.

The announcement is a significant move by the Irish government, which for decades has been resistant to shedding its near total ban of the procedure. But its hand was forced two years ago when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded that Ireland clarify its legal stance on abortion.

The ECHR ruling stems from the so-called X case of 1992, when a 14-year old girl who had become pregnant after being raped was forbidden to travel to Britain to obtain an abortion.Ireland’s Supreme Court overturned the decision and demanded Parliament enact legislation to allow for abortion in circumstances when a woman’s life was at risk in pregnancy, including by threat of suicide. The pregnant girl, known only as X due to reporting restrictions, subsequently miscarried.

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The government’s statement said both the legislation and the guidance would be “within the parameters” of Ireland’s constitution, “as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the X case.”

Government lawmakers will be unlikely to have a free hand, though, when it comes time to vote – likely before Easter. Speaking after the meeting, Health Minister James Reilly said: “I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened.”

Despite the decision, division lies ahead – and the government knows it.

Speaking in Parliament Monday, Kathleen Lynch, a junior health minister, said her government’s move would not satisfy people. “Mark my words, there will be another incident when we will have to come back and face this issue again. What we’re about to do is way too narrow,” she said.

But Sinéad Ahern of campaign group Choice Ireland welcomes the move as a first step. “It’s not something to be sniffed at, politically,” she says. “I think it marks a fundamental shift in the debate.”

Nonetheless, the matter is far from settled to the satisfaction of campaigners on either side. Antiabortion activists claim it opens the door to abortion on demand, while choice campaigners say the regime will remain restrictive.

What is clear is that any further loosening of antiabortion laws would require a referendum to overturn the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. The amendment, added after an antiabortion referendum in 1983, recognizes the right to life of the unborn as equal to the right to life of the pregnant woman.

New urgency

The question of abortion has taken on a new urgency in Ireland following not only the ECHR decision, but also recent events.

Ireland is still reeling after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old Indian woman who died after a miscarriage in a Galway hospital in October. Ms. Halappanavar’s widower, Praveen, claims his wife was denied an abortion that would have saved her life. Two separate inquires into Halappanavar’s death are underway.

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As soon as Halappanavar’s death was made public, abortion-rights groups started holding regular protestsoutside Ireland’s government offices and Parliament. After a few weeks of relative silence, antiabortion groups have upped the ante, holding their own demonstrations and leaflet campaigns. Now, both sides are poised for a fight.

Veteran feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth says Irish politicians are only acting because public opinion has forced its hand.

“Successive governments have been pusillanimous and completely cowardly on the whole issue. It’s beginning to become apparent to our legislators that there is a sense for movement on this issue,” she says.

However, antiabortion campaigners make similar claims of support and, unusually, are united with their opponents in calling for a public referendum on abortion.

Youth Defense spokesperson Ide Nic Mhathúna says her group will be stepping-up campaigning in response to the government decision, slamming the proposed legislation.

“Controlled murder is still not acceptable just because it’s controlled,” she says.

Ms. Nic Mhathúna also questioned recent media coverage of the issue in Ireland. “The entire media is blatantly pro-abortion. A lot of people are afraid to say they’re 100 percent pro-life,” she says.

Part of a larger debate

The renewed campaigning puts Ireland at the epicenter of an international struggle. The Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, recently told the Sunday Business Post newspaper it would be funding groups including Youth Defense to the tune of “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

According to Pro-Life Action League’s Eric Scheidler, Ireland is of importance to American antiabortion activists because it is a modern nation and yet, until now, all but banned abortion. “It’s unusual to have all of modernity but still not have abortion, so those of us who seek to have legal protections for the right to life look at it as an example that this state of affairs can exist,” he told The Monitor.

Choice Ireland’s Sinéad Ahern says abortion-rights groups do not have similarly deep pockets and a full-blown campaign would be very uneven.

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“There is no parity in terms of funding. It would make a huge difference for our campaign to have a bit more reach. Even something as basic as a leaflet campaign is quite difficult for us [and] we have no staff,” she says.

Despite being portrayed in the world’s media in the wake of Halappanavar’s death as a bastion of Catholicism, Irish views on abortion are nuanced.

An opinion poll conducted by research firm Red-C found 85 percent those surveyed said they wanted the government to legislate for the X case, “which means allowing abortion where the mother’s life is threatened, including by suicide.” As far back as 1997, 77 percent of Irish people surveyed said there should be some access to abortion.

However, the same poll found a further 63 percent supported the removal from any legislation of the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion.

Ivana Bacik, a senator and law professor who is known for her abortion-rights campaigning, says the Irish political class is playing catch-up with public opinion on abortion.

“I think public opinion had already changed before the death of Savita Halappanavar, but it was solidified,” she says. “There was a huge fear of the antichoice movement but more and more people are willing to see abortion legislated for.”