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Ireland abortion bill is signed into law after bruising debate

Irish President Higgins signs a bill allowing abortion in certain cases. There had been speculation that he would send it to the Supreme Court.

July 30, 2013|By Henry Chu
  • Abortion right activists demonstrate July 10 at the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin before a vote on bill outlining the circumstances under which medically necessary pregnancy terminations can be performed.
Abortion right activists demonstrate July 10 at the gates of the Irish Parliament… (Peter Muhly / AFP/Getty…)

LONDON — Ireland's first law authorizing abortion under certain conditions was signed into law Tuesday after a bruising debate in the predominantly Roman Catholic country over whether it risked opening the doors to abortion on demand.

President Michael D. Higgins' office confirmed that he had signed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, despite speculation that he might send the controversial measure to the Irish Supreme Court to examine its constitutionality.

Higgins' signature came 2½ weeks after a marathon session by lawmakers, who exhaustively discussed and parsed every word of the bill before approving it on a vote of 127 to 31. The lopsided tally belied the divisiveness of the debate in one of the remaining European nations to forbid the widespread practice of abortion.

The new law does not permit a woman to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstance; rather it allows abortion only when two doctors certify that a woman's life would be at "real and substantial risk" if the pregnancy continued. Only one physician's authorization is necessary in the event of an immediate emergency.

Doctors in Ireland already are authorized under professional guidelines to make such judgments, but many have hesitated to order even medically advisable abortions for fear of being hauled before the courts. Advocates of the bill said explicit legal backing was necessary to reassure doctors and to prevent incidents such as the avoidable death last October of Savita Halappanavar, 31, which galvanized abortion rights activists.

Halappanavar died of blood poisoning after hospital staff members refused to abort her 4-month-old fetus even though she had begun to miscarry. Her death sparked large protests in Dublin by those demanding that the government lay down guidelines for emergency abortions and counter-demonstrations by those against any liberalization.

Opponents of the new law are particularly concerned by a provision that allows abortion if the woman is suicidal over her pregnancy. Three doctors would have to concur in that case, but anti-abortion campaigners fear the provision is open to abuse and are likely to appeal passage of the law to the Supreme Court, even though Higgins opted not to.

Before signing the law, Higgins convened a meeting Monday of Ireland's Council of State, composed of senior public figures, to discuss the bill. The Irish Times reported that 21 of 24 members attended — the largest gathering of the council in more than 75 years — and talked for 3½ hours. Details of the discussion were not released.

Despite its waning influence in Ireland because of its sex abuse scandals, the Roman Catholic Church helped lead opposition to the bill.

The government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny was equally adamant that the bill should pass, and his parliamentary majority guaranteed it. Still, Kenny threatened lawmakers in his Fine Gael party with expulsion from its parliamentary caucus if they voted against the bill, and at least one government minister lost her post as a result.

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