DUBLIN — Twenty years after controversy erupted when a 14-year-old rape victim was barred from traveling to Britain to terminate her pregnancy, Ireland is bracing for another deeply divisive debate over abortion.
The Fine Gael/Labor government is struggling to respond to a 2010 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found that Dublin has failed to implement rules to enable a woman to have an abortion when her life is at risk during pregnancy. An expert group is due to report to the government as early as next week on how to comply with the ruling, raising fears among church leaders and some Fine Gael lawmakers that legal abortions may soon be carried out in one of Europe’s most Catholic countries.
“I am not a legal expert, but I would be very much pro-life and in favor of the right to life of baby and mother,” John O’Mahony, a Fine Gael member of Parliament, said.
O’Mahony is one of a group of 15 conservative Fine Gael lawmakers threatening to vote against any government proposal to liberalize abortion laws.
The opposition risks inflaming existing tensions with the Labor Party, which supports legislation that would enable women whose lives are at risk to access an abortion. Relationships between the two parties are fragile after the resignation of a Labor junior minister last week following a fallout with James Reilly, minister for health and deputy leader of Fine Gael. The two parties also face a challenge in reaching agreement on one of the toughest austerity budgets in decades.
“This harks back to the 1980s for Ireland. The economy is improving only very slowly, and yet the government is tearing its hair out over abortion,” said Michael McNamara, a Labor member of Parliament who favors legislating to comply with the ruling issued by the European Court of Human Rights.
“Ireland can’t be in the same camp as Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, who regularly do not comply with European judgments,” he said.
Abortion is one of the most deeply divisive issues in Ireland, which has held five bitterly fought referendums on the topic since 1983. It is one of only two European Union countries — the other is Malta — where women cannot access an abortion even when their lives are endangered by a pregnancy, suicide or medical conditions.
The practical ban on abortion in Ireland in all circumstances remains in place despite a ruling by the Irish Supreme Court in 1992 that abortion is legal under limited circumstances. This ruling was given in the so-called “X” case judgment, which involved a 14-year-old girl who was pregnant after being raped by a family friend.
The girl said she had suicidal thoughts, but when her family asked police if DNA from the aborted fetus would be admissible in evidence in a future court case, the Irish authorities imposed an injunction on the girl traveling abroad to get a termination.
The Supreme Court overturned the bar on travel and ruled that abortion was legal in Ireland when there is a “real and substantial risk” to a woman’s life. But two decades later, legislators who are either afraid of sparking a battle with the powerful anti-abortion lobby or hold their own staunch views on the subject have failed to pass the legislation required to implement the ruling. This has left pregnant women at risk with little option but to travel, mostly to Britain, to have abortions.
“The penalty for a doctor carrying out a termination or a woman having an abortion is penal servitude for life,” said Niall Behan, CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association. “This has a chilling effect.”
In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had violated the human rights of a woman in remission from cancer who became pregnant and could not find an Irish doctor willing to tell her if her life was at risk. The woman was forced to travel to Britain to have an abortion and, following complications, received inadequate follow-up medical care when she returned to Ireland.
Such cases are rare and are dwarfed by the 50,000 Irish women who have traveled to Britain for an abortion over the past decade. Many travel in secret due to the stigma attached to abortion in Ireland and struggle to raise the money to travel.
“You feel like a criminal and that you are doing something really dodgy,” said one woman who had traveled to Britain for an abortion and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is absolutely shameful and cowardly that the politicians have failed to legislate for the X case. They are too willing to listen to the lunatic fringe.”
Public battle lines are already drawn. On Sunday, Irish bishops will launch a month of prayer dedicated to the theme of “Choose Life!” as they crank up their opposition to legislating for abortion. And last Saturday, 2,000 pro-choice campaigners marched through Dublin, urging the government to implement the 1992 Supreme Court ruling.
“It is absolutely ridiculous that people in Ireland still have to travel to the U.K. to have an abortion,” said Jon Pierson, clasping a pro-choice placard. “This is the 21st century, for goodness’s sake.”