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December 21, 2018 (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) – The bill that legalises abortion in the Republic of Ireland has been signed by President Michael D Higgins.

Extreme bill rushed into law 

The euphemistic Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill completed its rushed passage through the Oireachtas last Thursday, with a nine hour debate in the Seanad (upper house). The bill was introduced after 66.4 per cent of the Irish people voted in May to repeal the Eighth Amendment – which protected the equal right to life of mother and unborn child – and to authorise the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.

Throughout the debate on the bill, a marked intolerance was shown towards any TD expressing a pro-life view point, or who tried to move any amendment to lessen the extreme nature of the bill. Pro-life TD Carol Nolan (who was earlier forced to resign from Sinn Fein over abortion) was subject to personal attacks for trying to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion. Other TDs were also ostracised – Peadar Tóibín left Sinn Féin after the party suspended him for six months for voting against the abortion bill, while Peter Fitzpatrick resigned from Fine Gael in part because of the governing party's promotion of abortion. 

What's in the bill?

The new Irish abortion regime, which is in many ways even more extreme than the law in the UK, allows abortion on demand up until 12 weeks. As this analysis of the bill explains, a baby can also be aborted until viability (around 6 months) where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the woman. The risk of “serious harm” to health is not defined, and is open to interpretation. Health as used here includes both physical and mental health. In the UK, the vast majority of abortions are carried out under the same mental health ground.

Abortion is allowed up to birth in a medical emergency, and when the baby has a life limiting condition. 

Amendments introduced by pro-life TDs, including those aiming to ensure pain relief for the baby in late term abortions, to ban abortion for disability or gender, and to ensure dignified disposal of aborted babies' remains, were all rejected. 

Abortions up to nine weeks are to be carried out using medical abortion pills, issued by GPs, while later abortions will be carried out surgically in hospitals. 

What about conscientious objection? 

While the Government claims that medical professionals have the right to conscientiously object to carrying out abortions, the bill specifies that they must refer a pregnant woman to a colleague who will carry it out. 

The issue of conscientious objection, as well as concerns about a lack of consultation, training, and resources, means that two thirds of GPs have said they are not willing to carry our abortions. 

When will abortions start?

Health Minister Simon Harris has been insisting that abortions will be available from 1 Jan – just 12 days after the legislation was signed into law. However, GPs have only been issued with “interim” clinical guidelines, and their representative body has expressed concerns about a “lack of clarity” around referral pathways to secondary care.

A number of hospitals have said they will not be ready in time for the deadline, and obstetricians, GPs and nurses have all warned that attempting to provide an abortion “service” in such a short time frame will put women at risk. 

Prof Chris Fitzpatrick, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Coombe hospital, who plans to carry out abortions “when it is safe to do so” says that legitimate clinical concerns are being “brushed aside in a frenzied attempt to meet a dangerously unrealistic deadline.” 

He went on: “[W]e are on the verge of introducing a new termination of pregnancy service, which, if rushed into operation on January 1st as scheduled, will pose a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of women.”

Published with permission from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.