Ireland set to allow abortion for first time under 'historic' new law

Protesters hold anti-abortion placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on Wednesday. Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images

Irish lawmakers voted to allow abortion in limited circumstances for the first time in the deeply Catholic country’s history Friday, following a bitter debate that saw letters written in blood sent to the country’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Under a new bill, doctors will be allowed to end the life of an unborn child if there is a threat to the life of the pregnant woman.

Lawmakers passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill by a substantial margin -- with 127 votes for and 31 against -- after a marathon debate began Thursday and ran into Friday morning.

A pro-abortion rights campaign group said the decision was “historic,” but added the bill did not go far enough as woman who are raped or whose unborn child is suffering from a fatal fetal abnormality will still not be able to legally have an abortion.

Anti-abortion groups fought hard against the bill, insisting that pregnant women were already allowed life-saving medical treatment and it was opening the door to abortion on request.

The debate over abortion was re-ignited in Ireland after the death of Savita Halappanavar last year. The 31-year-old was refused a quick termination of her pregnancy even though she was miscarrying and suffering from blood poisoning.

The bill must still go to the Irish Senate and then be signed into law by President Michael D. Higgins, who could decide to refer it to the Supreme Court to check whether the law is constitutional, according to TV station RTE.

The bill allows medical procedures that result in the ending of “an unborn human life” in order to deal with “a real and substantial risk of loss of the [pregnant] woman’s life.”

It also allows for an abortion if three medical practitioners agree this is necessary to prevent a pregnant woman from taking her own life.

Sinead Ahern, spokeswoman for Choice Ireland, said the decision was “very historic,” given the influence of the Catholic Church in the country.

She said it was a “huge step forward” for Ireland even to be talking about abortion.

“The church had a huge amount of control over the state. There’s been a huge fear from the government to even address this issue at all,” Ahern said.

“[The bill] really does show the massively decreased influence of the church and very powerful right-wing forces on the Irish government.”

But she said Ireland still had a constitutional amendment that bans abortion and called on the government to hold a referendum on whether it should be repealed. She also said a woman who terminated her pregnancy could also still go to prison for 14 years.

In 1992, Ireland's Supreme Court said termination of a pregnancy should be allowed if the woman's life was at risk, but Ahern said this was simply a "legal precedent" that meant doctors risked prison sentence if their decision to carry out an abortion was later deemed unnecessary.

Caroline Simons, legal consultant to prolife campaign, an anti-abortion group, said the decision was “not unexpected” but “very disappointing.”

“What this means is that the government has, for the first time, legislated to directly and intentionally end the life of a human being in law. That’s never ever been done before,” she said.

Prolife campaign said in a leaflet about the bill before it was passed that it “opens up abortion on request.”

“If it was about saving women’s lives, no one would oppose it. Under existing law, every woman is entitled to life-saving medical treatment. But the new Bill allows abortion for a threat of suicide. That’s not good medicine. Abortion doesn’t prevent suicide. It destroys a child. It increases risks to women’s mental health,” the group said.

“If the Government’s abortion Bill becomes law, it will for the first time in our history allow the direct targeting of the life of the unborn child. It is a million miles away from good medicine, from the kind of life-saving intervention which everybody supports.”

In this November 2012 picture, demonstrators hold placards and candles in memory of Indian-born dentist Savita Halappanavar who died from a miscarriage after being refused an abortion in an Irish hospital. Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images, file

Anti-abortion activists outside the parliament building prayed and cheered lawmakers who opposed the bill as they left.

"This is a terrible crime on the heart and soul of this nation," Rita Daly, a 56-year-old civil servant, holding a picture of an aborted fetus, told Reuters. "This is the intentional killing of our children, our flesh and blood."

In June, Kenny told parliament that his support for the bill had led to him being branded "as being a murderer," Reuters reported. "I'm getting medals, scapulars, plastic fetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the system, and it's not confined to me." 

The refusal to vote for the bill by longtime Kenny ally Lucinda Creighton, once tipped as a possible leader of the party, saw her lose her role as Europe minister.

"When it comes to something that is essentially a matter of life and death, I think it is not really possible to compromise," Creighton said in televised comments. 

Reuters contributed to this report.