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Law on abortion has to be clarified

THE death of Savita Halappanavar has shocked a nation and reignited the controversy over abortion. It will have international repercussions, especially with regard to the role of the European Court of Human Rights.

But the first thoughts of all humane people must be with a family plunged into agony. Their joyful expectation of a birth has turned into profound grief mixed with an element of disbelief. A young woman and her baby have both died.

And their second reaction should be one of calm and objective deliberation.

The circumstances of the dreadful tragedy in Galway have been widely publicised, but not yet confirmed. We have been told that over a period of three days in hospital the family pleaded several times for a termination of the pregnancy.

It would be terribly wrong if these heart-rending events prompted an outbreak of anger and bitterness, or a search for scapegoats. In particular, the medical profession deserves understanding, not blame.

Doctors and other medical professionals, like the public at large, are deeply confused on the subject of Irish abortion law. The fault lies in the lack of political will on the part of governments and legislators who for the past 20 years have failed to legislate and clarify the position.

In the 1992 'X' case, the Supreme Court ruled that a pregnant teenager had the right to a termination on grounds of a danger of suicide. It based the judgment on the "equal right to life" of the mother and the child. This right had been asserted in the 1983 anti-abortion referendum.

Several subsequent attempts to rule out the threat of suicide as grounds for an abortion all failed. The law remained unclear.

Two years ago, in a judgment which held that Ireland had breached the rights of an applicant, the European Court of Human Rights found that abortion is, in fact, legal here in certain circumstances. But we do not know what circumstances, because there is no legislation setting them out.

Since then, the Council of Europe's committee of ministers has pressed our Government for rapid action. On Tuesday night, the Government received the report of an expert committee on the subject. It is now essential that the report be published without delay.

However, it should not be considered with haste, much less prejudice. Irish opinion on abortion has changed radically over the past few decades, but most Irish people do not want "abortion on demand".

The variety of opinions, coupled with the intensity with which they are held on all sides, means that the Government faces immense difficulties in drawing up legislation.

If, after due consideration, it decides to act, it will face an equally difficult leadership challenge. Can it find it in itself to make the right decisions and explain them to a sceptical electorate? Can it lead a debate based not on conflicting emotions but a desire to come finally to grips with one of the most contentious subjects imaginable?

The short answer is that it must. We need clear and just laws on a vital issue. We owe it to ourselves. And we owe it to Savita's memory.

Irish Independent