Ireland introduces bill to clarify circumstances for legal abortion

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 May 2013 07:30 GMT

A candlelight vigil is held in Galway, Ireland, on Nov. 15, 2012, for 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar who died from septicaemia after miscarrying 17 weeks into her pregnancy. Her husband said she had been denied an abortion. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

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After woman’s pregnancy-related death, bill details circumstances concerning abortion, but does not expand rights, and risk to mother’s life remains only basis for terminating pregnancy

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six months following the death of a woman who underwent a miscarriage but had been denied an emergency abortion, the Irish government has proposed new legislation to clarify the conditions under which abortions may be performed legally.

Those conditions remain very few. Abortion is legal only when two doctors certify that termination of pregnancy is necessary to save the life of the mother due to physical illness, or when at least three doctors certify that there is danger a woman will commit suicide if the pregnancy continues.

Physicians, fearing prosecution, have sometimes found themselves in a quandary over exactly how to ascertain the risk to a mother’s life. The proposed Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013, published on April 30, seeks to clarify that.

It spells out in 33 pages every possible circumstance an Irish hospital, physician or pregnant woman might encounter concerning abortion, but it does not change the current law.

Abortion would remain illegal for women who are pregnant as the result of rape or incest, are carrying a fetus with a serious abnormality, or for whom pregnancy involves very serious health risks.

In a statement, Johanna Westeson, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said, “As the proposed legislation will be debated in the Irish parliament, we urge Irish lawmakers to consider amendments that expand the right to abortion in Ireland. At the very least, the parliament should take seriously proposals to make abortion legal in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities and when the woman’s health is at risk. “


There was little question that Savita Halappanavar’s health was at risk when she turned up at University Hospital Galway last October, reportedly in pain and in the process of miscarrying 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

The request of the 31-year-old dentist and her husband for an emergency abortion was denied though hospital staff acknowledged in medical notes that the foetus was not viable and Halappanavar was in danger of infection, according to a report in the Guardian.


The couple was told a legal abortion could not be performed because a foetal heartbeat was detected, and the mother’s life was determined not to be in immediate danger.

A week after arriving at the hospital, Halappanavar died of septicemia, a bacterial infection in her bloodstream, linked to the miscarriage.

On April 19, the jury in the inquest into her death in Galway found unanimously that she died due to medical misadventure. It also endorsed nine recommendations made by the coroner, including the need to clarify when a doctor can intervene to save the life of the mother.

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