New Legislation Introduced in Ireland Would Provide Needed Clarity on Legal Abortion For Women Suffering Life-Threatening Conditions

(PRESS RELEASE) The Irish government published yesterday the first outline of new abortion legislation aimed at providing doctors and individuals legal clarity about the circumstances under which a woman whose life is at risk may legally end a pregnancy.
 
On paper, abortion has been legal in Ireland in exceptional circumstances since 1992 for women suffering from life-threatening diseases and physical ailments, including ectopic pregnancy, and in cases where a woman is suicidal. But an absence of regulations on the procedure has made abortion under these circumstances virtually impossible to access in practice. This has led women to seek abortions outside of the country or—for women who do not have the means to travel abroad—to continue with their pregnancies, putting their lives at risk. The first outline of legislation published yesterday, called the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013, will not expand the right to abortion in Ireland but merely clarify to doctors and women when legal abortion can and should be obtained.
 
For pregnant women who are suicidal, the bill sets forth that as many as six doctors may be involved in verifying their condition before they will be entitled to an abortion. The so-called suicide exception has stirred much debate in Ireland preceding the bill, and opponents to abortion have suggested that abortion for suicidal ideation will “open the floodgates” to “abortion on demand.” For other health conditions, the opinion of two doctors will suffice.
 
Said Johanna Westeson, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights:
 
“Imposing different standards for assessing threats to life for mental health reasons and threats to life for physical ailments runs contradictory to international medical standards and human rights norms. To suggest that women would fake suicidal tendencies to access abortion is not only deeply offensive and misogynistic, but also in stark violation of women’s human right to be treated with dignity.
 
“The more barriers Ireland creates for women seeking legal abortion, the more likely women in crisis situations will opt to travel abroad than subject themselves to this humiliating process that the bill sets forth. This means that Ireland will continue to be in violation of its human rights obligation to make legal abortion accessible in practice.”
 
Moreover, the proposed new legislation will do nothing to help women who have other strong reasons to terminate their pregnancies. If the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 becomes law, abortion will remain illegal for women whose pregnancies involve serious health risks, are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or are carrying a fetus with a serious abnormality.
 
The exceptionally restrictive Irish abortion regime goes against well-established human rights standards on women’s rights and has been criticized by several international human rights bodies.  In the 2010 European Court of Human Rights case ABC v. Ireland the Center for Reproductive Rights argued that Ireland's current abortion law is inconsistent with legal standards for abortion regulations in international human rights law and in comparison to other countries in Europe. The court ruled that Ireland’s ban on abortion violated the human rights of a woman who was unable to find out whether her cancer was sufficiently serious as to qualify her for a legal abortion in the country. It called on the state to make effective the right to legal abortion when a woman’s life is in danger.
 
“We support every step toward the decriminalization of abortion in Ireland and welcome the government’s efforts to clarify the criteria for a legal abortion, in line with recommendations from the European Court of Human Rights and various other human rights bodies,” said Westeson. “But this legislation, if passed, would still leave Ireland with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, to the detriment of women’s right to health, dignity, and self-determination.”
 
“The Irish government has a fundamental responsibility to ensure every woman is guaranteed the right to make her own decisions about her reproductive health, her family, and her future, and while this bill is a step in the right direction, it is a small one. The Irish government could have taken this opportunity to expand women's access to safe abortion, and we are deeply disappointed that it appears they do not plan to do so.”
 
The Ireland abortion debate has been brewing for decades. In 1983, Irish people voted to adopt an anti-abortion amendment into the constitution, giving equal rights to life to both pregnant women and the unborn. In 1992, a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim, known only as X, was barred from leaving Ireland to terminate her pregnancy, which incited uproar in Ireland and abroad. Eventually, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that X was constitutionally entitled to a termination because she was suicidal and there was a real and substantial threat to her life. This narrow exception to the abortion ban has never been made effective in legislation.
 
Twenty years after the X case the abortion debate made headlines worldwide with the death of Savita Halapannavar on October 28, 2012. Halapannavar found out at 17 weeks into her pregnancy she was having a miscarriage. Despite her multiple requests to terminate her pregnancy, the doctors at Galway Hospital did not perform the abortion because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat, even though it was clear that the fetus was not viable. Halapannavar died of septicemia, a bacterial infection in her bloodstream aggravated from the miscarriage. Her tragic death illustrates clearly that the right to abortion in Ireland when a woman’s life is in danger has never been implemented. It also shows that an exception that only allows termination when the woman’s life is threatened, as distinct from her health, often is unworkable in practice. The bill presented today does not allow for abortion when there is a serious health risk.
 
In 2008, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the University of Toronto International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Programme submitted a joint friend-of-the-court brief to the European Court of Human Rights in the ABC v. Ireland case, supporting the challenge to Ireland’s abortion law. In the brief, the Center argued that the distinction between a threat to life and a threat to life in the abortion context violates international human rights standards, and pointed out that all but four countries in the 47-member Council of Europe allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy to protect her health.
 
“As the proposed legislation will be debated in the Irish parliament, we urge Irish lawmakers to consider amendments that expand the right to abortion in Ireland,” said Westeson.” At the very least, the parliament should take seriously proposals to make abortion legal in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities and when the woman’s health is at risk.”