Ireland proposal on abortions finally arrives

DUBLIN — Ireland unveiled a long-awaited bill Wednesday that lays down new rules governing when life-saving abortions can be performed, a point of potentially lethal confusion for women in a country that outlaws terminations.

Activists particularly oppose the bill’s provisions for women who threaten to kill themselves if they are denied a termination. The bill specifies that three doctors — the woman’s obstetrician and two psychologists — must determine that the suicide risk is substantial. If denied, the woman would have a right of appeal to a panel of three other doctors.

Most other life-saving abortion cases would require certification by two doctors, or just one in emergencies requiring an immediate decision.


The bill, if passed, would change nothing for the vast majority of an estimated 4,000 Irish women who travel annually for abortions in England, nor the growing number who order miscarriage-inducing drugs over the Internet.

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The bill would set a maximum 14-year prison sentence for anyone involved in an illegal abortion, whether doctor or patient. The current law, dating to 1861, sets the maximum penalty at life.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, speaking to reporters after his government published the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, said he hoped the coming weeks of debate would not turn bitter. But he warned Catholic conservatives within his own party to back the bill or be expelled.

‘‘I do hope that we can bring everybody with us, on an issue that I know is sensitive,’’ said Kenny, who said his government was seeking only ‘‘a clarification of rights within existing law.’’

Kenny’s government took action following the death of a woman last year from blood poisoning after she was refused a termination because her dying fetus had a heartbeat


Antiabortion activists, including many in Kenny’s Fine Gael party, protest that the proposed law could become a platform for eventual wider access to abortion in Ireland. Malta is the only other European Union country that bans it.

The bill, published after weeks of government infighting, faces lengthy debate and likely amendments. Kenny wants it passed by July.

During parliamentary debate, left-wing opposition lawmakers who want broader access to abortion accused Kenny of hypocrisy.

‘‘What you’ve presented is the absolute minimum,’’ lawmaker Clare Daly told Kenny. ‘‘The clear intention is to make it so restrictive that most women will not even bother. Instead they’ll continue to make the journey to Britain so that you can continue to pretend that there’s no Irish abortion.’’

Ireland’s abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that abortions should be legal when doctors deem it necessary to save the woman’s life. The judges defined a credible suicide threat as one reasonable ground.


That ruling was made in the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a family friend, a crime that her parents reported to police. The government ordered the girl not to travel to England for an abortion, and she threatened to kill herself if forced to give birth. The court ruled she should receive an abortion in Ireland, given her suicide threats. The girl then miscarried.

While the ruling had the power of law, a series of governments refused to enact supporting legislation, fearful of a backlash in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic.

Obstetricians have complained they need clearly defined regulations to avoid murder charges.