DUBLIN (AFP) – Irish lawmakers on Friday overwhelmingly approved abortion for the first time in limited cases where the mother’s life is at risk, in a vote that revealed deep divisions in the predominantly Catholic nation.
The change was prompted by the death last year of an Indian woman due to complications from her pregnancy, but more broadly ends years of uncertainty over the legal status of terminations in Ireland.
Legislators voted through the bill by 127 to 31 against in the early hours after two days of marathon debate in parliament. It will now go to a vote in the upper house, where the government has a majority.
But in a sign of the rifts that remain on the issue, a junior minister quit her post after voting against the bill and faces exclusion from Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s ruling Fine Gael party.
Kenny revealed recently he had received abusive letters written in blood and opponents of the bill have branded him a murderer, while 35,000 abortion opponents marched in Dublin on Saturday.
“I am deeply disappointed to have to vote against the government’s abortion bill today,” said Lucinda Creighton, junior minister with responsibility for European Affairs in Kenny’s cabinet.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill allows for abortion in circumstances where doctors certify there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, as opposed to a risk to her health.
It also permits a termination when one obstetrician and two psychiatrists unanimously agree that an expectant mother is a suicide risk.
The “suicide clause” in particular has divided society, with some anti-termination lawmakers warning that it will lead to a more liberal abortion regime in Ireland.
The bill follows a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ireland failed to properly implement the constitutional right to abortion where a woman’s life is at risk.
Under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, women in Ireland are legally entitled to an abortion if it is needed to save a mother’s life — but six successive governments have failed to introduce legislation to reflect this.
The global attention following the death of 31-year-old Indian woman Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last October prompted Kenny’s government to act.
Halappanavar had sought a termination when told she was miscarrying, but the request was refused as her life was not at risk at the time. She died of blood poisoning days after miscarrying.
Human Rights Watch, the US-based rights group, said the new Irish legislation still “fails” women.
“The new law leaves intact the broad criminal ban on abortion. A woman pregnant as a result of rape, for example, or whose pregnancy is not viable, still can’t get a legal abortion in Ireland,” HRW said in a statement.
Kenny did not allow a free vote on the matter, and already four other government lawmakers have been expelled from the party after voting against the bill at an earlier stage.
Creighton, the outgoing minister for European Affairs, voted against the government because of her misgivings about the suicide clause.
She immediately resigned before she was sacked and has also been expelled from the parliamentary party.
“I feel deeply and strongly that aspects of this bill are based on flawed logic and absolutely zero medical evidence,” she said.
If passed in the upper house, the bill will go to the president, Michael D. Higgins, who can sign it into law or refer it to the Supreme Court if he feels it is unconstitutional.
New figures from the health ministry in Britain released on Thursday show 3,982 women, including 124 under the age of 18, travelled from Ireland to England or Wales for a termination in 2012.
Between 1980 and 2012, more than 150,000 women travelled from Ireland to England and Wales for a termination, according to the figures.
Photo Credit: AFP/Peter Muhly