LONDON – After exhaustive – and exhausting – debate, lawmakers in Ireland approved a controversial bill early today spelling out strict rules under which abortions can be performed, the first time that the Roman Catholic nation has enshrined such permission in law.
Legislators voted 127-31 in favor of the proposal, which allows an abortion if a woman’s life is at risk.
The lopsided count masked deep divisions in parliament and in Irish society over a bill that supporters said brought clarity to murky guidelines surrounding medically necessary abortions but that opponents warned would lead to terminations on demand.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny marshaled his political forces to guarantee the bill’s passage, including threatening lawmakers from his Fine Gael party with expulsion from its parliamentary caucus if they refused to toe the line. At least one of his ministers defied the order and lost her job as head of the government’s portfolio on European affairs.
The new law delineates the conditions under which doctors would be allowed to end a woman’s pregnancy in order to save her life. In theory, such a procedure was already permissible, but many doctors in Ireland have avoided performing abortions for fear of prosecution because the rules were so vague.
Kenny vowed to introduce the legislation after the preventable death in October of Savita Halappanavar, 31, who was four months pregnant. She had begun to miscarry, but hospital staff refused to abort the fetus because they said they could still detect a heartbeat.
Halappanavar died of blood poisoning. Her death prompted major street protests in Dublin demanding that the government clear up the confusion surrounding emergency abortions, if not liberalize the practice in general.
But anti-abortion activists mounted their own rallies supported by the Catholic Church, which has lost much of its moral authority in Ireland because of clerical sex-abuse scandals but remains an important voice on social issues.
The law specifies that an abortion can be performed as long as two physicians agree that the mother’s life is at “real and substantial” risk from continuing with the pregnancy. If the threat to life is immediate, one doctor’s authorization is sufficient.
The biggest controversy centered on a provision allowing an abortion in the case of a pregnant woman in danger of committing suicide over her condition. In that case, three doctors must judge the threat to be credible. But critics fear the provision will be abused.
So great were the passions stoked by the government’s proposal that lawmakers presented more than 150 amendments, some of them designed to gut or torpedo the bill. A final vote in parliament had been expected Wednesday, but debate continued on various amendments almost without break until 5 a.m. Thursday.
Another marathon session ended with the final vote at 1 a.m. today. Supporters inside and outside the parliament building cheered when the vote tally was announced.