Irish President Signs Historic Bill Slightly Relaxing His Country’s Total Abortion Ban


Irish President Michael D. Higgins

Irish President Michael D. Higgins

CREDIT: AP/Peter Morrison

The President of Ireland on Tuesday signed into law a bill finally granting Irish women the right to an abortion to save her life. The historic legislation marks the first time the country has updated its abortion restrictions since 1867 — but a long way still is yet to go to raise the standards of reproductive health in Eire.

President Michael D. Higgins could have decided not to sign the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, though he had previously signaled his willingness to do so. Instead, he could have punted it, sending the legislation to the Irish Supreme Court to debate its constitutionality. But after convening the Irish Council of State for consultations, for only the only the 30th time since 1940, Higgins chose to put his name on the bill.

While still an improvement on the strict mores that dictated Irish reproductive policy, the act still leaves much to be desired in terms of allowing women more freedom to dictate what the choose for their bodies. The law finally allows for women to terminate a pregnancy in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, including a provision that deals with the risk of suicide. Amendments that would have allowed for exceptions to the Irish abortion ban in cases of rape or incest proved a bridge too far, however, and were withdrawn during the debate over the bill. So too were any exceptions for cases of fatal fetal defects, despite polling that shows the Irish public in favor of such exceptions.

The debate has engulfed Irish politics since the death of a young Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied a life-saving abortion in an Irish Catholic hospital. During the course of the debate, thousands took to the street to call for greater access to reproductive healthcare, activists risked time in prison to educate women about their options, and the Prime Minister received threats written in blood.