Wednesday 28 September 2016

Late-stage terminations add to the Irish abortion fiction

Published 22/06/2015 | 02:30

The legal limit for abortions was previously 28 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967, but the limit was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990 after a radical overhaul of Britain's fertility laws
The legal limit for abortions was previously 28 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967, but the limit was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990 after a radical overhaul of Britain's fertility laws

Almost twice as many Irish women (31) had late-stage abortions in England and Wales last year compared to 2013 when 16 such pregnancies were terminated after the legal time limit of 24 weeks.

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The legal limit for abortions was previously 28 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967, but the limit was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990 after a radical overhaul of Britain's fertility laws.

Very few abortions take place after 24 weeks, with the vast majority (92pc) carried out at under 13 weeks gestation and eight out of 10 carried out at under 10 weeks. But late-stage terminations can be availed of (after certification by two doctors) after the 24-week legal limit in cases of severe foetal abnormality, where there is a grave risk to the life of a woman, or a grave risk of physical and mental injury to her.

Though the numbers of Irish women availing of late-stage abortions in the UK is small, they are growing. And the increase in numbers is likely to fuel an ongoing debate around Ireland's failure to address the plight of women with fatal foetal abnormality pregnancies, many of which are not detected until after a woman has her 20-week scan.

The Government has consistently turned its back on women seeking support for termination for medical reasons.

Their voices were excluded outright from the Oireachtas debates that led to the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, dubbed 'Savita's Law' after the death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar at an Irish hospital.

The law, passed in 2013 - we will shortly know how many terminations have taken place under it - does not allow for terminations in cases where an unborn has been diagnosed as having a fatal foetal abnormality.

But the issue is far from settled.

Eight years ago, the Irish government argued before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that it was "an open question" as to whether Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution - the eternally divisive Eighth Amendment - would permit termination for medical reasons.

The argument was advanced as part of an ultimately successful bid to prevent a case involving an Irish woman being admitted to the Strasbourg court's docket.

Referring to the Irish government's submissions in the D case, the ECtHR said in its ruling, denying admissibility, that it was argued that the Irish courts were unlikely to interpret 40.3.3 with "remorseless logic" in exceptional cases and if it had been established that there was no realistic prospect of the foetus being born alive.

Following the recent referendum that gave birth to constitutional recognition of same-sex marriage, there are hopes in some quarters - and fears in others - that a less remorseless attitude will be extended to women and girls facing crisis pregnancies.

And there is, following the D case - as well as last year's tragic High Court action involving a young mother who suffered brain death at around 15 weeks of pregnancy - at least a tenable argument that the rights of an unborn may not be engaged in circumstances where it has no prospect of life outside the womb.

But this is one issue, as Fine Gael and Labour have confirmed, that will not be dealt with in the lifetime of the current Dáil.

And so we continue with the fiction that termination of pregnancy doesn't happen in Ireland at all.

Irish Independent

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