Spurred By Savita’s Tragic Death, Irish Lawmakers Work To Amend The Country’s Total Abortion Ban

Pro-choice activists protest in front of the Irish embassy in London (Credit: Tal Cohen/Uppa/Zuma)

After an all-night debate, Irish lawmakers approved an update to the deeply conservative country’s abortion law early on Friday morning. The parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of allowing for narrow exceptions to Ireland’s total abortion ban in cases when a woman’s life is in danger — a measure drafted in response to the controversy ignited by Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old woman who died after being denied an abortion in an Irish Catholic hospital.

Members of the Irish parliament sparred for hours over amendments to the proposed legislation. Religious conservatives objected to a provision that allows women to seek a legal abortion if they are at risk of committing suicide, complaining it’s a “Trojan horse” that will allow more access to abortion because women will pretend to be suicidal. Female lawmakers attempted to insert a provision to extend the exception to allow abortion access for women who have become pregnant as a result of rape and incest.

Ultimately, the amendment related to suicide stayed in — and will attempt to address conservatives’ concerns by requiring three different doctors to verify that the suicide risk is “real and substantial” before allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy. The amendment related to rape and incest was too controversial, and ended up being withdrawn. The bill also does not include any exceptions in case of fatal fetal defects.

The legislation now heads to Ireland’s version of the Senate. The country’s prime minister — who recently received threatening letters written in blood as the debate rages over abortion in the deeply Catholic nation — has already confirmed he will sign it.

Even though the proposed bill represents an extremely narrow exception to Ireland’s harsh abortion ban, reproductive rights advocates in the country point out it’s still “very historic” considering the ongoing influence of the Catholic Church. “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,” Sinead Ahern, a spokeswoman for the women’s health group Choice Ireland, explained. “[The bill] really does show the massively decreased influence of the church and very powerful right-wing forces on the Irish government.”

But Ahern also pointed out there’s much more work to be done. Irish women who break the law to terminate a pregnancy still face up to 14 years in prison. Even groups that help educate women about their options to travel to other parts of Europe to get an abortion are risking jail time.

Ireland is one of just a handful of Catholic-dominated countries that still impose total bans on abortion. Following Savita’s death, similar controversies have unfolded in El Salvador and Chile. Research from the Guttmacher Institute confirms that banning abortion doesn’t actually lower abortion rates — it just encourages women to risk their lives to end a pregnancy through unsafe means.