FactCheck: Abortion bill still many stages away from passing into law

The lengthy passage from bill to law has led to confusion.

A REPORT ON a vote on a bill to expand the circumstances in which an abortion can be carried out in Ireland has been misinterpreted, sometimes to imply that it has already passed through the Dáil. It still has to pass many further stages, through the Dáil, the Seanad, and the President, before it will take effect in law.

The website Irish Legal News reported on the story with the headline: “Dáil votes to fully decriminalise abortion”.

However, this headline has unintentionally misled some, as is evidenced by Facebook posts that shared the story saying thing like: “The Senate still needs to pass the bill, but it’s expected to pass.”

In fact, on May 31, the Dáil voted that an amendment proposed by Bríd Smith and other members of People Before Profit–Solidarity, should move to committee, the third of five stages that a bill must pass in the Dáil. It will be referred to the Oireachtas Health Committee.

The Irish Legal News story did not mention that this was only passed at the second stage, or that there were multiple more stages to go.

If the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Amendment) Bill 2023 passes through the Dáil, it then moves through further stages in the Seanad, before being signed into law by the President.

An overview of how a bill becomes a law can be read here

 It is common for bills that have advanced to committee stage in the Dáil to later be amended, voted down, or delayed until they become defunct.

The editor of Irish legal News, Connor Beaton, told The Journal, “Irish Legal News is a specialist news service for the legal community. We write for an audience which is familiar with the legislative process and understands that bills must go through several stages.”

He said he had amended the article since being contacted by The Journal so as not to cause confusion for a wider audience.

The passing of the bill at this stage is significant though as it highlights an appetite by politicians to consider changes to the laws on abortion.

“While most TDs would prefer to avoid the issue until after the next election, they also seem to have realised how strongly public opinion favours abortion rights,” a statement by People Before Profit-Solidarity read.

Another Facebook post that has caused controversy, reads: “Sinn Féin has just voted in the Dail, to decriminalise abortion up until birth”, along with the name of the Bill.

While the phrase “decriminalize abortion up until birth” is easy to misinterpret, they are technically correct.

The amendment does propose that removal of section 23 of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018, which makes anyone who ends the life of a foetus “otherwise than in accordance with the provisions of this Act”, liable for up to 14 years imprisonment.

This is explicitly described as removing “all clauses relating to the criminalisation of abortion” in the bill’s explanatory memorandum

Deputy Peadar Tóibín, one of the bills detractors, told the Dáil that, “this will leave no real sanction to prevent an abortion, thereby allowing for abortion up until birth”.

However the bill’s supporters say that abortions would be “treated like any other medical procedure”, and while some restrictions still apply, it would not fall under criminal law by default.

The amendment proposes that abortion can still be provided “on request prior to foetal viability” — the stage at which a fetus might survive outside the uterus; often taken as between 23-24 weeks.

It also proposes that the abortion should be allowed after this point where medical practitioners have determined that the mother’s life or health is at risk if the pregnancy continues.

The amendment also proposes abortions should be allowed where there is an abnormality that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus within a year of birth, rather than within 28 days described in current legislation.

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