THE GOVERNMENT has agreed to introduce new legislation allowing abortions to be carried out in Ireland within the terms of the Supreme Court ruling in the X Case.
The agreement means the Oireachtas will vote in the New Year on the first piece of legislation in Irish history which will permit abortions to be carried out in circumstances where the life of the mother is at risk, and where that risk can only be addressed by terminating the pregnancy.
The decision was made by ministers at their weekly Cabinet meeting this morning, three weeks after they first received and debated the report of an Expert Group set up in the wake of a European Court of Human Rights ruling which deemed the absence of legislation in Ireland to be a breach of human rights.
The legislation will be supplemented by regulations governing the exact circumstances under which abortions can be carried out.
The government said in a statement this afternoon that the drafting of both legislation and regulations would be “within the parameters of Article Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the X Case”.
The statement added that the forthcoming legislation would also “make appropriate amendments to the criminal law in this area” – a reference to existing criminal law from 1861 which makes it an offence to undergo or administer any procedure intending to deliberately cause a miscarriage.
“The legislation should provide the clarity and certainty in relation to the process of deciding when a termination of pregnancy is permissible, that is where there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the woman and this risk can only be averted by the termination of her pregnancy,” the statement said.
‘Committed to ensuring the safety of pregnant women’
The ‘legislation plus regulations’ option had been one of the four main options outlined by the Expert Group, which said the option would provide “appropriate checks and balances between the powers of the legislature and the executive”, and would also be flexible enough to account for future medical developments.
Decisions on finer points of the government’s new policy have been deferred until next year, on request from the Minister for Health, James Reilly.
“I know that most people have personal views on this matter,” Reilly said in a statement this afternoon.
“However, the Government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened. We must fulfil our duty of care towards them.
For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman’s life.
We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child.
Reilly stressed that the government would not “pre-empt the debate” that would follow its decision by speculating on finer details of the proposed new legislation.
Legislation will remove ‘chilling effect’
The government will now formally communicate its decision to the European Court on Human Rights, which ruled in 2010 that the human rights of Irish women were being breached by the government’s failure to introduce legislation offering clear guidance on when abortions can be administered.
In that case, the court described the continuing presence of the 1861 criminal legislation as a “chilling effect” on the ability of doctors and medical professionals to make clear decisions about when their patients could undergo abortions, and whether they were empowered to administer them.
Choice Ireland has welcomed the decision, though its spokeswoman Sinéad Ahern said it was now vital that the implementation of the legislation not be further delayed.
“We are calling on the government to commit to a timescale to draft and implement legislation,” Ahern said.