Ireland is to legalize abortions when the mother’s life is at risk, including when she is suicidal, in an historic move expected to spark a major battle with the Roman Catholic church.
Ireland’s cabinet took the decision on Tuesday following a huge public outcry over the death of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant woman in October who died after her repeated requests for an abortion were refused while she was suffering a miscarriage.
The Irish government has decided to repeal legislation that makes abortion a criminal act and to introduce regulations setting out when doctors can perform an abortion when a woman’s life is regarded as being at risk, including by suicide.
Dr James Reilly, the Irish health minister, said that the government was aware of the controversy surrounding abortion.
"I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened. We must fulfil our duty of care towards them," he said.
"For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman’s life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."
Ireland’s abortion laws are the strictest in Europe and any proposed legislation to decriminalise abortion will stoke furious debate in Ireland, which remains a staunchly Roman Catholic country.
Ronan Mullen, an independent Irish senator, accused the government of “double think” for condemning the deaths of children in the Sandy Hook shooting while showing “no concern for unborn children”.
"I find it entirely appropriate that we would join in solidarity with the people, with the children who died in Connecticut," he said. "Let’s be sincere about that. And let’s not slip into a double-think either, however, where we forget a whole category of children in our own country."
Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that draft legislation would be published in the New Year with a timetable of having the legislation ready by Easter.
To ensure the controversial law is passed the government whip would be applied to MPs in the ruling Fine Gael party which is deeply divided over the proposals. “There will be no free vote on this,” said Mr Kenny.
Under current Irish law abortion is criminal unless it occurs as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother.
The new legislation will drafted to comply with a landmark ruling in the European Court of Human Rights two years ago and a 1992 Irish Supreme Court decision in the “X case”.
The Irish ruling 20 years ago overturned an injunction preventing a 14-year girl, who had been raped and was suicidal because she could not get a legal abortion, from travelling to Britain to have her pregnancy terminated.
She later had a miscarriage but her case did not lead to legal reform adding to confusion over when abortion was allowed in Ireland.
The reforms are expected to allow the fear of suicide as a ground for abortion but may not provide for rape or sexual abuse, neither of which formed part of the 1992 ruling.
In 2010, Europe’s human rights judges ruled on the “A, B and C case” in a judgment that criticised Ireland for failing to provide an accessible process by which a woman can have established whether she qualifies for a legal abortion under current Irish law.
The Iona Institute, a religious think-tank, said including the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion in the legislation “would not save a single life”.
"Irish law already allows the ending of a pregnancy when there is no other choice and there is a clear threat to the life of the mother," said Maria Steen, the institute’s spokesman.
"A decision to include a threat of suicide as a ground for abortion would also be wrong in principle because it would authorise for the first time ever the deliberate and direct destruction of unborn human life in Ireland."
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties welcomed the decision and called on the government to go further.
"There is no good reason why the government should limit itself to the minimum action required to implement this one judgment," said Mark Kelly, the ICCL’s director.
"It should seize the opportunity to thoroughly overhaul Ireland’s antediluvian laws on abortion, including by rendering lawful the termination of pregnancies involving fatal foetal abnormalities."
The Indian government intervened in October after the death of Mrs Halappanavar, 31, originally from India, who was 17 weeks pregnant when she developed back pain and tests revealed that she would lose her baby.
Despite her repeated pleas over three days, doctors refused to perform a termination as they could still hear the foetus’s heartbeat and, according to reports, told her: “This is a Catholic country”.
Mrs Halappanavar’s condition rapidly deteriorated and she died after developing septicaemia four days after the death of her baby.
The case prompted a huge public outcry with pro-choice campaigners branding her death “an outrage” and renewed calls for the Irish government to legislate for abortion.