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Abortion: Irish President signs bill into law

The Irish President Michael D Higgins has signed a new abortion bill into law in the Republic of Ireland, reports the BBC.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is the first piece of Irish legislation to permit abortions in certain circumstances when there is a threat to the life of the mother.

As with abortions in other jurisdictions, the Act will also allow a termination when the consensus of medical opinion agrees that the mother is likely to take her own life if the pregnancy continues. 

It had been thought that the bill might be referred to Ireland's Supreme Court to consider its compatibility with the constitution of Ireland, but in the end it was signed into law immediately.

Savita Halappanavar

The bill was brought into law after the tragic death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland after contracting septicaemia during a miscarriage.

Mrs Halappanavar had begged doctors for an abortion, knowing that the pregnancy was doomed and fearing for her own life.

However, the doctors lawfully refused, as Irish law at the time did not permit a termination whilst there was a foetal heartbeat. Mrs Halappanavar and her baby subsequently died.

The tragedy of the death of Mrs Halappanavar sparked a national and international outrage, and led to an inquiry that concluded that Ireland's confusing laws on abortion were partially to blame.

Law not the whole problem

Ireland's law did previously permit abortions in similar circumstances to those contained in the new Act, following the case of X, heard by the Irish Supreme Court in 1992.

However, the inquest into Mrs Halappanavar's death concluded that the law was unclear and that doctors were unsure as to the circumstances when an abortion would be permitted without them facing criminal sanctions afterwards.

The inquest ruled that at the time Mrs Halappanavar requested an abortion her life was not in danger, but when her condition deteriorated suddenly it became too late for an abortion to save her.

Abortion in Ireland is an emotive issue, with pro-life campaigners calling the signing into law of this new Act a 'sad day for Ireland'.

The widowed husband of Mrs Halappanavar has also received threatening letters from campaigners warning him to 'leave Ireland'.

Pro-choice campaigners welcomed the law cautiously.

"[This law seems] more focused on restricting access to abortion than on addressing the real circumstances of women's lives," said a spokeswoman for campaign group Action on X.

The Act includes continuing provisions for a girl in Ireland to face a 14-year prison sentence for having an illegal termination.