Wednesday 1 May 2013

What might the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill’ mean for Irish women seeking abortion?

The Irish government has produced a bill which if passed, will, according to Prime Minister Enda Kenny, ‘clarify the circumstances’ in which medical practitioners can intervene to save a woman’s life by providing abortion. Kenny has stated that the new bill “would continue within the law to assert the restrictions on abortion that have applied in Ireland and which will apply in future”. In other words, it does not seek to change Irish law on abortion, which states that abortion is restricted only to cases where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Following the recent death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway there has been a demand for clarification on the circumstances in which doctors can legally provide life-saving treatment. Kenny claims that if the bill goes through it will “at last bring certainty to pregnant women and legal clarity to medical personnel who work within the system”.

So what does the bill actually say?

The bill is carefully worded so as not to present decision making around abortion as privileging the rights of the woman over the rights of the developing pregnancy. Suggested provisions are purely about saving a woman’s life in emergency situations and all efforts must be made to protect the ‘unborn child’ (as the pregnancy is referred to) wherever possible:

“Essentially the decision to be reached is not so much a balancing of the competing rights rather, it is a clinical assessment as to whether the mother's life, as opposed to her health, is threatened by a real and substantial risk that can only be averted by a termination of pregnancy.”

Some provision is made for those women who claim to be suicidal in the face of having to continue an unwanted pregnancy. It is proposed that in such cases, three doctors are to examine the woman and must reach a unanimous decision on the threat to her life. If the three doctors do not agree, the woman may appeal to another three consultants, meaning that her case could potentially be reviewed by six separate medical professionals.

What are people saying about the bill?

Members of the government claim that the bill would provide much needed clarity to enable doctors to work within the very restrictive Irish abortion law. However, there have been criticisms from both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners.

Some anti-abortion campaigners have evidenced concerns about the law being ‘relaxed’ with access to abortion expanded. Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said the idea that “a simple threat of suicide would make right something that would otherwise be wrong is a really dangerous principle”. And in a recent televised debate, a Fine Gael politician was asked if potentially fatal health risks are an 'acceptable risk' in pregnancy, or whether they are grounds for abortion in some cases. He responded: "But sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway." This begs the question of why he’s against abortion, and indeed whether he thinks medical care is redundant for all people whose lives may be in danger or just pregnant women.

Many pro-choice campaigners have taken issue with the ‘suicide clause’ in the bill. A spokesperson from the Centre for Reproductive Rights calls it ‘outrageous and paternalistic’ and goes on to criticise Irish abortion law more generally as being an “absolute violation of international human rights norms on women's right to health and dignity. It's totally off track with the rest of Europe."

In summation, the bill is not yet passed, and if it does go through both houses of Irish parliament, it will not make any changes to the law itself. Even with these amendments the thousands of Irish women who travel to the UK (and elsewhere) to access abortion would still need to do so. Arguably it might make provision for rare cases in which the woman's life is threatened but this will still sit within a legal framework which threatens to prosecute doctors whose actions are seen as being outside of these restrictions.

To follow the debate we suggest checking out the Irish ‘Doctors For Choice’ campaign which will provide regular updates.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill can be viewed in full here.

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