New Abortion Controversy Roils Irish Politics

Pro-abortion activists and politicians are utilizing a case where a pregnant woman threatened to commit suicide to lobby for further changes to Ireland’s abortion law.

Participants hold candles at an Aug. 22 pro-life vigil outside of Ireland's legislature in Dublin.
Participants hold candles at an Aug. 22 pro-life vigil outside of Ireland's legislature in Dublin. (photo:

DUBLIN — In July 2013, Enda Kenny’s coalition government pushed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill through the Irish Parliament, and it went into effect in January 2014.

The law allows for abortion, without time limit, where there is a risk to the life of the woman, including threatened suicide. It is not known how many times (if any) the provisions of the legislation have been implemented, but a major disagreement has now broken out over the first abortion controversy since the law was enacted.

The facts relating to this current case are unclear and are subject to some legal reporting restrictions. But some apparent details have emerged very slowly in recent days, based mainly on an interview given by the mother herself (via an interpreter), as well as initial newspaper stories based on unknown sources.

It appears that the young woman arrived in Ireland earlier this year. She does not speak English. While undergoing a medical test upon entering the country, she discovered that she was eight weeks pregnant and claimed that the pregnancy was the result of rape. She was referred to the Irish Family Planning Association, which is affiliated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, for counseling and was told that traveling for an abortion in the United Kingdom would cost about $2,000 and involve some complicated paperwork for visa purposes.

She is then alleged to have attempted suicide at 16-weeks gestation. Eight weeks later, at approximately 24 weeks into the pregnancy, she went to a general practitioner, who referred her for a psychiatric assessment. This triggered the provisions in the 2013 abortion legislation, and a panel of doctors assessed the situation.

In cases involving suicide concerns, a panel of three doctors — two psychiatrists and one obstetrician — assesses the threat of suicide. If an abortion is denied, the woman has a right of appeal; no system exists for somebody to appeal the abortion decision on behalf of the unborn child.

She was then told, presumably based on the obstetrician’s judgment, that she was too advanced in pregnancy for an abortion, at which point she went on a food-and-water strike for four days. She then agreed to deliver her child via Caesarian section at 25 weeks. This resulted in the live birth of a baby boy who remains in intensive care in a hospital.

The woman has been released from the hospital and continues to receive psychiatric care.  

But this may not be the complete story. As Ireland’s new Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has warned, many of those commenting on the case are not in possession of the full facts.


Controversial Provision

The suicide provision of the 2013 legislation was particularly controversial among pro-life groups, as well as many practicing psychiatrists.

As Patricia Casey, a consultant psychiatrist at Mater Hospital Dublin and professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, argued, “There is no evidence from international studies showing that abortion is a recognized treatment, or part of a treatment, for a suicidal pregnant woman, nor has it been suggested that this might have prevented the rare cases of suicide that occur in pregnancy.”

But one distinct feature of this abortion controversy is the existence of a live premature baby, who may face significant physical consequences as a result of the premature delivery. Dr. Sam Coulter Smith, the director of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin, has said that, while the vast majority of such premature babies will survive, they will spend months in the hospital and have only a 20%-30% chance of avoiding long-term, serious health consequences.

Newly consecrated Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin has strongly criticized the premature delivery of the baby without a sound physical reason to justify it.

“The removal of a child from the womb in that kind of context is really unethical, and there is no other way of putting it. It was far better that the child was removed from the womb to be saved than to be aborted, but it is not natural,” Bishop Doran said.

Pro-abortion activists and politicians have immediately seized on the case to argue for a referendum to remove the 1983 constitutional amendment that recognizes the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child. This would enable politicians to introduce a law to allow abortion on request, as in most other European countries. If such a law were in place in Ireland, it almost certainly would have resulted in the baby in this case being aborted.

While it is generally considered unlikely that there will be any move to further liberalize the law before the next election in 2016, several members of the Labour Party (the junior party in Ireland’s coalition government) have called for the groundwork to commence the removal of the constitutional protection for the unborn.

According to newly appointed Equality Minister Aodhan O’Riordain, “The next government needs to go to the people and ask them to change the constitutional position in Ireland in relation to abortion.”

This new phase in the ongoing battle over the constitutional protection for the unborn has now moved to the streets. Pro-life groups have organized vigils to show solidarity for the baby and concern for his mother, while pro-abortion groups protested on the streets of Dublin and other cities last Wednesday to campaign for further liberalization of Ireland’s abortion laws.


‘A Tragic Story’

Cora Sherlock, deputy chair of Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign, has strongly criticized those arguing for more liberalized abortion in Ireland.

“This is a tragic story for both mother and baby,” she said in a statement. “There is a premature baby, clinging to life in a Dublin hospital, as a direct result of last year’s abortion legislation; and all some Labour TDs [members of Parliament] can do is exploit the situation to push for more abortion. Pro-choice activists are, in effect, saying that the baby at the center of this tragic case should never have been born.

Said Sherlock, “It is a chilling and disturbing reminder of the cruel and inhumane reality of legalized abortion.”

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin.