Experts Urge Irish Government to Act on Abortion Law

A report into Ireland’s vague and restrictive abortion law has recommended new legislation to bring Ireland into line with human rights standards.

The expert panel reporting back on Tuesday, made up of medical professionals, law specialists and other qualified parties, recommended a number of potential avenues for reform to bring Irish law into compliance with European human rights standards.

The panel floated the notion of a special register for doctors who carry out licensed terminations. It also said that training doctors to provide this procedure would be necessary as there are currently few in Ireland who have the expertise. This is especially important as two doctors are required to sign off on the procedure.

The report also said that, were it to be established that a woman’s life is in imminent danger, there should be the option of bypassing normal processes in order to allow for an abortion, though only in very carefully regulated circumstances.

This follows the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar who was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway on October 21 with severe back pain and nausea. She was found to be having a miscarriage.

Despite this, and despite the fact that doctors found that her health was in serious danger, she was denied an abortion because they had detected a fetal heartbeat. Despite her family’s pleading the doctors refused treatment until the fetus had expired. She had, by this time, developed acute septicemia and did not recover.

Two separate investigations are now underway into why Halappanavar was denied a termination despite Irish law providing for her case.

These new recommendations also called on the role of local health practitioners like GPs to be increased. Together with gynecologists and psychiatrists, GPs are ideally placed to determine how denying an abortion can increase the risk of suicide — this, until now, has not been catered for in Irish law.

With regards to how these changes should be made, the expert report highlighted four approaches:  Non-statutory guidelines, statutory regulations, legislation alone or legislation plus regulations.

The expert group warned that guidelines alone would not be appropriate as they would not be sufficiently binding. Anything less than a firm legal framework, the group warned, and the government would leave itself open to further court action. It also cautioned against legislation alone, saying that this might be too restrictive and not allow doctors to use their good judgement in difficult cases.

The panel was established after the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 reminded Ireland of its obligations to human rights standards affirmed in the 2005 case known collectively as the A, B, C case. The women turned to the courts arguing that Ireland’s abortion restrictions were a breach of their human rights.

While the first and second case were dismissed, C’s claim proved compelling.

C had been receiving treatment for cancer for three years. After going into remission she unintentionally became pregnant. She claimed that when she attempted to find out whether the pregnancy might in fact be harmful to her own health and whether the fetus should be screened for signs of cancer, she was given insufficient information by her physician. C believed this was because of Ireland’s unclear abortion law and the fact her GP did not want to risk prosecution should he advise that a termination was necessary. As a result C traveled to the UK in order to have an abortion.

However, she was unable to find a clinic as she was a non-resident, and then had to wait a further 8 weeks for a surgical abortion. Not only this, but the abortion had complications. As a result, C suffered prolonged bleeding and infection. She alleged that, back in Ireland, doctors gave her inadequate medical care and that her general practitioner failed to give her proper care after the termination, again because the GP in question did not want to be party to a termination.

The Court found C had been denied an abortion in this, a case where it could be determined her life was at risk, because there was nowhere she could go to secure a legally authoritative determination of what her rights were. The Court noted the chilling effect of Ireland’s abortion legislation that was driving healthcare officials to deny abortions when they would have been legally recognized. The Court called for Ireland to clarify the law.

The report also emphasizes a now 20 year-old Supreme Court ruling known as the X case in which the Supreme Count found that a termination in life-threatening circumstances, including a risk of suicide, was lawful and warranted.

Despite this, and despite the fact that Ireland, per Article 46, must comply with ECHR ruling, subsequent Irish governments have failed to take up the issue because they are aware that abortion reform remains a contentious issue, particularly among Ireland’s strong Catholic conservatives.

Now, according to reports, the government is at least prepared to conscience moving forward, though one notes there is still room for heel dragging:

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the Government was united on the issue.

He said the matter requires careful, calm and sympathetic consideration and he would not be rushed on the issue.

“We’re not going to leave this hanging on interminably,” he said. “I’d like to deal with this as quickly and as comprehensively, when it’s practical to do so. Don’t ask me for a specific date, but it’s not going to be left hanging around.”

It remains unclear as to whether the government will take the expert recommendation to mix legislation with statutory guidelines or whether it will try to bypass parliament and risk further years of unclear regulations.

However, the expert panel’s recommendations do not signal a whole-scale change. Indeed, the expert panel noted that the judgement in the A, B, and C case “provides that it is lawful to terminate a pregnancy in Ireland if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by a termination of the pregnancy. This has not been altered by this judgment.”

In effect, unless the woman can prove she could die as a result of continuing the pregnancy, it is unlikely she will be afforded the right to a termination even after this reform.

This seems in contrast to the reactions from anti-abortion groups like the SPUC who within hours fired off a statement warning this was the beginning of a so-called British “abortion on demand” culture, with the statement saying in part:

We call upon all people of good-will in Ireland, including the Catholic bishops, to back an all-out campaign to defeat – not just amend – any options allowing abortion. This will require widespread resistance to be mobilised. Ireland’s politicians should be put on notice that they will lose their seats at the next election if they vote to legislate for abortion.

Pro-choice supporters have welcomed the report as a first step to reform and now urge the government to act swiftly to change the law.

Choice Ireland spokesperson Stephanie Lord said:

It is obvious from the options set out in the Report that the Government are left with no option now but to legislate to provide lawful abortions for women where they have life threatening conditions. The Government did not need an Expert Group to tell them this but now that they have, it should be acted on immediately.

Choice Ireland is calling for cross-party support for Deputy Clare Daly’s Bill which will be heard…tonight and tomorrow, allowing for abortion under those circumstances. The Government should allow this legislation to proceed as an emergency measure. It would still allow them to reflect on the options provided in the Expert Group Report.


Related Reading:

Irish Government Defeats “Woman’s Life At Risk” Abortion Bill

European Court Orders Ireland To Modify Abortion Laws

Ireland’s Strict Abortion Laws Challenged In European Court


Image Credit: Thinkstock.


Jennifer U.
Jennifer A5 years ago

I hate knowing that there are governments so narrow minded and unreasonable that a doomed child's life is more important that the mother's. I feel like the correct thing to do in situations such as these should be obvious. Save the mother, don't allow her to suffer if her child is already doomed.

Amber Martingale
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

Therese D.: Bull. The politicians may vote to defy the ECHR, but that's because they're damned afraid of being voted out by Catholics. Not to mention you keep spelling Savita's name as Salvita.

Aoibhinn: That is NOT what the doctors told Savita's widower. They told him that as a Catholic country, Ireland did not allow them to remove a fetus already being miscarried until the heartbeat stops, regardless of the mother's medical condition and that as they were Hindu they should simply LIVE WITH IT.

Therese Davey
Therese Davey5 years ago

Irish people are not blindly following a religion, we democratically vote to change our constitution and have voted on this issue 3 times. The Church/ Rome/ men in peculiar clothes?? are not interfering in our politics. We do live in the modern world and if you care to inform yourselves go check the OECD rankings, maternal mortality rates, literacy rates, even newspaper and radio listenership, we do know what’s going on the 21st cent. world. The Church, like everyone else, is free to share their view- that both mum and unborn child has an equal right to life and that in the current medical practice it is possible to respect that right for both. NOTHING in Irish law prevented the hospital from ending Savita’s pregnancy in order to save her life. Inducing labour to save the life of the mother happens regularly in Irish hospitals and is not the same as abortion. Salvita died within days of delivering her miscarried baby girl. We may never know for certain whether ending the pregnancy earlier would have controlled the septicaemia and E Coli ESBL infection that killed Salvita within days of delivering her baby girl, but, if medical staff needed to do it that they could have done it. This sad case is about a miscarriage and clearer medical guidelines for the doctors and not about abortion legislation. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights does not oblige the Government to legislate for abortion.

Aoibhinn Gilroy
Aoibhinn G5 years ago

To those Americans who smugly commented and criticised Ireland, did you know your rate of maternal deaths is 8 times that of Ireland, and we don't have abortion? As you like to say 'Go figure'. Our country is safer than yours for expectant mothers.

Aoibhinn Gilroy
Aoibhinn G5 years ago

Anyone who believes in democracy and signs this pointless petition, is contradicting themselves; this is a domestic issue & one that only Irish people should decide about. Of course the pro-abortion lobby don't recognise or respect any geographical boundaries, but want the whole world to facilitate abortion. Do you really think the rest of the world should tell Ireland what values to have? We can decide that for ourselves as we are a democracy.

Aoibhinn Gilroy
Aoibhinn G5 years ago

Most of you who commented have never even been to my country, Ireland, and don't know the first thing about our country. Firstly I will say, Ireland IS a democracy, and this is a matter for the Irish people, and the Irish people ALONE. The majority of the Irish people don't want abortion, and we have already spoken in referendum after referendum. This is not simply a religious issue; I am not religious, but I have ethics, and I understand that a woman having a 'choice' is not all that's at stake in this issue; there is also a life to consider, which has already started. Talking of choice, there are so many contraceptive options out there that abortion should not be so widespread in this day & age.

We are not morons in Ireland either as some have tried to insinuate; the majority also believe that if a woman is in a hospital & her life is medically in danger, that medics need to do whatever is necessary to save her, even if that means the child is lost. By the way, the Catholic church in Ireland also believes that, they are not unrealistic either. NO-ONE in Ireland is saying that you have to wait for the fatal heartbeat to stop in a case where the mother is at risk. Every day in Ireland maternity hospitals and regular hospitals put woman's lives first. The Savita case is being hightlighted, why? Because that situation never happens here; Irish medical guidelines are clear that doctors have to put the life of the woman first, and they do. For all you Americans commen

Diana P.
Past Member 5 years ago

There's nothing that angries my as much as people who blindly follow religion and church. Actually especiallt church. Really it just amazes me how good the church is at manipulating these people, it's like they can't really think on their own, logically, but follow every word of priest. And it's people like that woman who suffer the most when it comes to health decisions like abortion or even euthanasia. Bloody zealots should let other people live without interfering with every decision that the government has to make. I really hate it when church gets involved with politics...

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan H5 years ago


Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen5 years ago

You know, it's the same all over the world, religion rears its ugly head to do exactly what man created it to do eons ago and that is control of the masses. I often wonder what it will actually take before people snap out of their mind fog and wake up to the mind plague that religion infects one with. Slowly, but surely, I see more people speaking out against religion and I applaud them for their bravery. Generally, people don't just wake up one day and decide they're an atheist. Atheism is something that develops slowly over time for a lot of us. I think many of us started out as christians or some other religious ilk and because of any number of things began to lose our religion. It's a journey for many of us, but it is well worth it. I just wish, for the world, that everyone could make this journey and come through it seeing clearly for the first time in their lives. It is a breath of fresh air to finally shed the ties that bind one to silly superstitions just because it was what you were taught from birth. I wish the best for women everywhere who find themselves under the thumb of religious ideologies, generally at the direction of and under the control of men.

Christopher M.
Christopher M.5 years ago

I presume Ireland is a democracy, so the [Catholic] voters must approve of what is going on. Granted they should not have let a woman die. Now the European Union has open borders so if Ireland doesn't have abortion, some other E.U. country does. I can't argue with democracy and due process.