Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 is necessary and long overdue

Thu, May 2, 2013, 09:41

The Cabinet’s agreement on Tuesday to the heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 is an important and welcome first step in filling a serious 21-year lacuna in the State’s legal provisions. It begins to remedy a failing pointed to by our own courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), one that has placed women’s lives in jeopardy, doctors in a legally dangerous limbo, and driven a continuing trail of thousands of women to Britain’s abortion clinics. Arguably, that uncertainty contributed directly to the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

The heads of Bill set out three procedures for dealing with crisis pregnancies which may require recourse to abortions: in a medical emergency one doctor will be needed to certify the necessity for a termination; in a non-emergency, where there is “a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother” that can only be averted by a medical procedure as a result of which unborn human life is ended, two doctors will be required; and where a pregnant mother manifests suicidal ideas, three doctors.The Bill will also provide for an appeals process.

Reassuringly, in the light of the legal confusion in the Savita case, the test applied by doctors, according to the explanatory notes to the Bill, will not require them “to be of the opinion that the risk to the woman’s life is inevitable or immediate, as this approach insufficiently vindicates the pregnant woman’s right to life.”

The notes explain that “in circumstances where the unborn may be potentially viable outside the womb, doctors must make all efforts to sustain its life after delivery. However, that requirement does not go so far as to oblige a medical practitioner to disregard a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman on the basis that it will result in the death of the unborn”.

To leave out the suicide option from the legislation, as some in Fine Gael suggested, would not have been right. The purpose of the legislation and regulations is not to introduce abortion, and not to change but to clarify and give practical effect to the constitutional position. That is why a free “conscience” vote for TDs is also not necessary – at issue is not a fundamental moral issue but a legislative obligation.

Suggestions that six doctors – and more in some early drafts – should be required to approve an abortion in a suicidal woman are not just impractical but an attempt to thwart the Supreme Court’s intent by placing what would have been in practice insuperable obstacles in the way of seriously distressed women exercising their constitutional right. Such safeguards as are being proposed are more than enough to guarantee the integrity of the system. In that context, the appeal mechanism, involving three more doctors, and required by the ECHR arising from the A,B and C case, should also be seen not as an additional barrier but as extending women’s rights.

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