London - Ireland’s first law authorizing abortion under certain conditions was signed into law Tuesday after a bruising debate in the predominantly Roman Catholic country over whether it risked opening the doors to abortion on demand.
President Michael D. Higgins’ office confirmed that he had signed the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, despite speculation that he might send the controversial measure to the Irish Supreme Court to examine its constitutionality.
Higgins’ signature came 2½ weeks after a marathon session by lawmakers, who exhaustively discussed and parsed every word of the bill before approving it on a vote of 127-31. The lopsided tally belied the divisiveness of the debate over abortion in one of the last Western European nations to forbid widespread practice of it.
The new law does not permit women to terminate their pregnancies under any circumstance; rather it allows abortions only when two doctors certify that a mother’s life would be at “real and substantial risk” if she continues to carry the child. Only one physician’s authorization would be necessary in the event of an immediate emergency.
Doctors in Ireland already are vested with such powers, but many have hesitated to order even medically advisable abortions for fear of being hauled before the courts. Advocates of the bill said explicit legal backing was necessary to reassure doctors and to prevent incidents such as the avoidable death last October of Savita Halappanavar, 31, which galvanized abortion-rights activists.
Halappanavar died of blood poisoning after hospital staff refused to abort her 4-month-old fetus even though she had begun to miscarry. Her death sparked large protests in Dublin by those demanding that the government lay down guidelines for emergency abortions and counter-demonstrations by those against any liberalization.
Opponents of the new law are particularly concerned by a provision allowing termination if the expectant mother is suicidal over her condition. Three doctors would have to concur in that case, but anti-abortion campaigners fear the provision is open to abuse and are likely to appeal passage of the law to the Supreme Court, even though Higgins opted not to.
Before signing the law, Higgins convened a meeting Monday of Ireland’s Council of State, composed of senior public figures, to discuss the bill. The Irish Times reported that 21 of 24 members attended -- the largest gathering of the council in more than 75 years -- and talked for 3½ hours, but details of the discussion were not released.
Despite its waning influence in Ireland because of its sex-abuse scandals, the Catholic Church helped lead opposition to the bill.
The government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny was equally adamant that the bill should pass, and his parliamentary majority guaranteed it. Still, Kenny threatened lawmakers from his Fine Gael party with expulsion from its parliamentary caucus if they voted against the bill, and at least one government minister lost her post as a result.