– Sarah McCarthy reports on last night’s draft legislation on life-saving abortion, and the reaction of pro-choice groups.

Savita Halappanavar died last November as a result of Ireland's restrictive laws on abortion.

Savita Halappanavar died last November as a result of Ireland’s restrictive laws on abortion.

Last night, the Cabinet finally published the draft of the Heads of Bill for the ‘Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013’. After 21 years, it looks like we will finally have legislation on the X Case before the summer is out.

The Bill requires one doctor to approve a termination to save a pregnant woman’s life in the case of an emergency, two in a non-emergency situation, and three consultants to unanimously approve a termination when a woman’s life is at risk due to “suicidal ideation”. If a woman at risk of suicide is denied a termination she must appeal to another panel of three consultants, who must also be unanimous in their decision.

The Bill also replaces the 1861 Offenses against the Persons Act, under which the sentence for procuring an illegal abortion was life imprisonment. Under this draft legislation, the penalty for obtaining an illegal abortion in Ireland is 14 years imprisonment and/or a fine.

Torturous Process                   

Pro-Choice groups have criticised the requirement of three consultants to unanimously approve a termination in cases of an imminent danger of suicide.

Sinéad Kennedy of Action on X stated:

“The proposal to make a despairing, suicidal woman or girl go through at least three, and possibly six examinations in order to end an unwanted pregnancy shows a callous disregard for women’s lives. Faced with the possibility of refusal by one or more doctors and an onerous appeals procedure, a woman is likely to go overseas. Those who are too poor or too ill to travel are likely to become more despairing, increasing the risk to their lives.”

Imprisonment

Many Pro-Choice groups are also deeply concerned with Head 19 of the Bill; the provision for 14 years imprisonment for women who illegally access abortions in Ireland.

Sarah Malone of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) described the penalty as “nothing short of barbaric”, going on to say:

“To threaten women facing this difficult decision with imprisonment is not only wrong in and of itself, but it may prevent women from disclosing information about previous abortion to their doctors, or seeking medical care in the event of complications from illegal abortion. It is indicated under Head 19 that abortion must be criminalised because of Article 40.3.3. This clearly displays the need to repeal the 8th  Amendment in order to afford women in Ireland parity in health care, and adequate protection for their lives.”

Legal Challenges

There is also great concern about a section of the Bill that allows “any person who believes” they have a right to take action and prevent the termination, to do so through the courts. The wording of the clause is vague, and it seems to leave much room for potential abuse of the system.

ARC spokesperson Orlaith Reidy said,

“A woman on the brink of suicide, having already been through an ordeal of being assessed by up to six doctors, could then be faced with court proceedings against her. Such proceedings would not only be an invasion of privacy and damaging to the woman, but their nature and length will bring undue hardship and denial of her constitutional right to a legal abortion in Ireland.”

Still No Reproductive Choice

Ultimately, as everyone from ARC to Enda Kenny has repeatedly said, this legislation does not change the law in Ireland. We continue to be amongst the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world.

As Therese Caherty from Action on X said:

“This Bill is designed to placate the anti-abortion minority rather than meet women’s needs. It also reinforces the distinction between a woman’s life and her health and welfare – where a woman who could be permanently incapacitated by pregnancy cannot get an abortion. The 8th Amendment must be repealed and women’s health needs and choices provided for.”

Despite the restrictive nature of this draft, some Fine Gael bankbenchers still say they will break party whip and vote against it. Clearly, Pro-Choice groups have a long fight ahead of them.

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