Irish lawmakers back repeal of abortion ban

Demonstrators hold posters as they march for more liberal Irish abortion laws, in Dublin, Ireland on Sept 30, 2017.
Demonstrators hold posters as they march for more liberal Irish abortion laws, in Dublin, Ireland on Sept 30, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBLIN (NYTIMES) - An Irish parliamentary committee recommended on Wednesday (Dec 13) that a constitutional ban on abortion be repealed, paving the way for the liberalisation of one of the world's strictest abortion laws.

The committee recommended removing the provision in the Irish Constitution that gives a fetus and the mother an equal legal right to life, which has been the law since 1983. That provision has been used to ban abortion in all circumstances, including rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and any risk to the life of the mother.

The committee also said women should have unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

The committee's recommendations will now go to the full Parliament, which can decide whether to accept them and whether to call a referendum for a vote on changing the constitution.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has already said he was committed to holding a referendum on the issue by next May. Simon Harris, the minister for health, said this week that he supported repealing the constitutional ban and allowing free access to abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

Ailbhe Smyth, a spokesman for the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, a group pressing to repeal the constitutional provision that bans abortion, praised the committee's decision, calling it "a very major step forward". Ronan Mullen, an independent member of the committee, opposed the repeal of the constitutional ban and any measures to decriminalise abortion, and he had earlier accused other members of the committee of having a "pro-choice bias".

But Catherine Murphy, a leader of the Social Democrats and another member of committee, said that with such a wide range of opinion among members of the committee, it was "very encouraging" that it was possible "for most of us to come to a common agreement on some principles".

For decades Irish women and girls seeking to terminate their pregnancies have gone abroad, mainly to Britain. In 2015, according to the United Kingdom's figures, at least 3,400 Irish women travelled to England and Wales for procedures that would have violated the law in their own country, an experience many described as traumatic and humiliating.

The 1983 constitutional ban was passed with the active support of the Roman Catholic Church, then a dominant force in Irish religious, social and political life. Initially, the prohibition was zealously enforced although it was widely believed that some doctors would quietly perform emergency terminations in cases of dire medical need.

In recent years, growing opposition to the ban was fuelled by a number of legal and medical controversies. Among those was the "X Case" of 1993, in which the Attorney-General at the time obtained a court order preventing a 13-year-old rape victim from traveling to England to seek an abortion.

This ruling was later reversed on the grounds that the girl might have committed suicide if she had been forced to carry the fetus against her will. In a sign that attitudes were already changing, the Irish electorate subsequently voted against a new referendum, supported by the Catholic Church and anti-abortion organisations, that would have specifically banned suicidal symptoms or expressions as grounds for allowing an abortion.

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died after miscarrying in a Galway hospital. Halappanavar, who was already gravely ill, had asked for an abortion to save her life but was reportedly told that her nonviable fetus could not be removed while it still had a heart beat.

An official inquiry later concluded that confusion over the law had contributed to delays and failures in treatment that were among the causes of her death. The Irish government then passed a law further eroding the blanket ban by specifically allowing terminations in such emergency circumstances.

In the years since 1983, the influence of the Catholic Church has greatly declined in Ireland, partly because of a series of scandals over child sexual abuse and the treatment of "fallen" women and "unwanted" children confined to church-run homes and laundries.

Also, attitudes toward a variety of social issues have generally liberalised. A major bellwether of the changing social views came in 2015, when the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote, 62 to 38 per cent.

The committee vote on repealing the abortion ban was 14-6, with the chairman abstaining. The vote on whether abortion should be available without restriction until the 12th week of pregnancy was 12-5, with four abstentions.

Although the 12-week limit is more restrictive than the limits set in many other Western countries, most analysts had previously believed that the Irish Parliament, generally conservative and cautious, would support decriminalisation only in cases of rape, incest, a risk to the mother and other extreme circumstances.