Ireland: Bill legalising abortion passes first hurdle
Legislators in Ireland have voted in favour of a reform that will pave the way for legalising abortion in life-threatening cases.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill passed its first hurdle after a 138 to 24 vote in favour, clearing up decades of confusion over the right of women to have abortions in extreme circumstances.
The bill will now come up for final passage next week.
The debate around Ireland's stringent anti-abortion laws was reignited following the death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died from septicaemia following a miscarriage last year.
Her inquest in April heard how she was repeatedly denied a potentially life-saving abortion.
Catholic leaders warned that the proposed new law, which faces potential amendments this week, was a "Trojan horse" designed to permit widespread abortion access in Ireland which, almost uniquely in Europe, officially bans abortion in all circumstances.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, however, insisted the country's constitutional ban on abortion would remain unaffected.
Ireland's laws on abortion commit the government to defend the life of the unborn and the mother equally. But it has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that this ban actually meant that terminations should be legal if doctors deem an abortion essential to safeguard the life of the woman, including from her own suicide threats. Six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of the Supreme Court judgement, citing its suicide-threat rule as open to abuse.
This left Irish hospitals hesitant to provide any abortions except for the most clear-cut emergencies and have led to many pregnant women in medical or psychological crises to seek abortions in neighbouring England, where it has been legal since 1967.
The current Irish government has been under pressure to pass a law on life-saving abortions ever since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2011 that Ireland's inaction forced women to face unnecessary medical dangers.
Halappanavar's case proved a catalyst after the 31-year-old died at Galway University Hospital in October last year, a week after being admitted in severe pain at the start of a miscarriage.
She fell into a state of toxic shock, then into a coma, and died from massive organ failures days later. Since then, medical reviews have found that an abortion a day or two before the foetus' death would have increased her chance of survival.
However, the hospital was also found guilty of many other failures in her care.
The conditions of the new bill require consent of three doctors and that of as many psychiatrists as well, if there's a suicide threat.
"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. Ireland will still have one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world," the National Women's Council of Ireland warned.