Abortion law: what comes next?
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill has passed through the Oireachtas, but the scope of the legislation is likely to be challenged
Abortion legislation is, just about, on the statute books. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill has completed its tumultuous passage through the Oireachtas and President Michael D Higgins is consulting the Council of State about the Bill before considering sending it to the Supreme Court.
For the first time in the history of the State, the debate is no longer about whether abortion should be legal, but about the circumstances in which it should be. The legislation represents a defeat for the anti-abortion lobby, which had reached for every weapon in its arsenal over the past nine months to stop it.
It is, however, the most restrictive piece of abortion legislation in Europe. It will criminalise any woman, or girl, who procures an abortion outside the confines of the legislation, punishing her and anyone who assists her with up to 14 years in prison.
It will not allow for abortion where a woman is pregnant as a result of rape or incest or where she is carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality. It differentiates between a physical and a mental threat to a woman’s life, and will compel her, if she is suicidal, to submit to assessment by up to six doctors. It will not protect her health where the pregnancy threatens it, even if it threatens lifelong injury.
And at no point may the woman exercise choice.
This legislation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Speaking this week, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter described as a “great cruelty” the fact that women carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities could not have an abortion here and as an “unacceptable cruelty” that women pregnant as a result of rape couldn’t. He pointed to the Constitution as the reason and suggested a future Government would have to put Article 40.3.3 to the people to consider its repeal.
Since 1983, Article 40.3.3 “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.
The 30th anniversary of this, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, falls in the autumn – it was signed into law on October 7th, 1983, having been passed by a two to one majority in a referendum on September 7th 1983 – and plans are underway by numerous pro-choice groups for a campaign to get it repealed.
If experience tells us anything however, it is less the campaigning, mostly by women, that forces political movement on the abortion issue in this country; it is more the highly charged tragedies suffered by women. Arguably, without the account by Praveen Halappanavar, last November 14th, of the circumstances of the death of his wife, Savita, in Galway University Hospital a fortnight before, the new legislation would not have reached this stage.