Abortion Debate Heats Up in Ireland as Law Revision Looms

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Ireland does not seem an obvious locale for heated debate over abortion laws. After all, abortion has been illegal in the once- staunchly Catholic country since before its creation in 1922.

But a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling complicated that ban by permitting abortion in cases where the pregnant woman's life is at risk. Despite this, successive governments did not take legal steps that reflected that judgment, and abortion has become a political "third rail," even after a 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment forced the issue.

Now, a government-appointed "expert group" is nearing its long- delayed announcement of recommendations on how to clarify Irish abortion laws and comply with the ECHR judgment and has touched off the abortion debate in Ireland once again.

What was once a simple, if highly divisive, matter of rights the right to life vs. the right to individual autonomy has shifted into softer, therapeutic territory: a debate over what approach best serves the interests of the expectant mother.

A conflicted legal history

Ireland's law against abortion was inherited from a British law enacted in 1861. It has never gone off the books, making Ireland one of only two nations in the European Union to ban abortion completely (the other being Malta). Ireland also amended its Constitution in 1983 to recognize a right to life in the unborn, "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother."

But in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted if there was "a real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother. This judgment came in the wake of the X Case, when a 14- year-old girl, who was suicidal after becoming pregnant following a rape, was sequestered by the state in order to stop her obtaining an abortion in the UK. She subsequently miscarried.

Despite the ruling, Ireland's abortion ban was never revised to incorporate the court-mandated exception, leaving a legal limbo.

So in 2010, the ECHR, part of the 47-country Council of Europe (as opposed to the EU), ruled that Irish law was unclear on whether abortion is legal if a woman's life is threatened by pregnancy. It also ruled that Ireland must clarify this in line with the amendment in its own Constitution outlawing abortion.

Now, three months later than expected, the "expert group" looks set to announce its findings and make a recommendation on how Ireland should amend its laws and the war of words is well under way, dividing Ireland along religious and secular lines.

Further complicating matters, Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, technically outlaws abortions under the same Offenses Against the Person statute dating back to 1861. Despite this, family planning charity Marie Stopes has announced plans to open a clinic in Belfast next Thursday offering medical abortions, sparking outrage from anti-abortion campaigners. British law permitting abortion was never extended to Northern Ireland, but a legal loophole was created by the judgment in the 1938 Bourne case in England, allowing abortions if a doctor agrees the pregnant woman is at immediate risk or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health.

War of words

Pro-life groups say Ireland must simply clarify its position on maternal health, and fear any change in the law could lead to a situation of abortion-on-demand, analogous, they say, with the situation in the United Kingdom. Pro-choice groups claim the government now has a duty to allow abortions, albeit in limited circumstances.

One of the key fears of pro-life supporters is that the government could interpret "life of the mother" to include not just physical health, but mental health as well thereby potentially increasing the availability of abortions under the exception.

"In every country where abortion has been legislated [for] on mental health grounds, it had led to abortion-on-demand," says Caroline Simons of Pro Life Campaign. …