Proposed Irish abortion law demands referral by objectors, denies freedom of conscience to denominational institutions

Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013

The general scheme for a new Irish abortion law will permit abortions when there is a “real and substantial risk” to the life of a woman by reason of physical illness, suicidal ideation, or emergency medical conditions.  The scheme is called a “heads of bill”, with each “head” corresponding to what is likely to become a section of the final
bill.  However, the wording and content of each head are not settled.

Protection  of Conscience Provision

The General Scheme for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 includes a protection of conscience provision that is limited to medical practitioners, midwives and nurses.  The commentary states that the provision is derived from a bill passed by the Irish Parliament in 2001 (which ultimately did not become law), but it is narrower provision than the original, which extended protection to all persons.

All hospitals and institutions operated by the state or by persons contracted by the state will be required to provide abortions if they provide maternity or neonatal care.  No exemptions are permitted for facilities operated by religious denominations or persons who object to abortion for reasons of conscience.

Section 2 of the protection of conscience provision may deny freedom of conscience to psychiatrists and other medical practitioners who do not wish to participate in panels convened to approve abortions for women who are threatening to commit suicide.  One third of Irish psychiatrists have already signed a letter to the government asserting that abortion is not a treatment for suicidal ideation.

Finally, the bill demands that medical practitioners who do not want to participate in the procedure must find someone willing to do so.  Many conscientious objectors are unwilling to refer patients for morally contested procedures because they believe that by doing so they become morally complicit in wrongdoing.

It is not clear how much difficulty the mandatory referral requirement will cause, since the bill envisions abortion only in circumstances involving a substantial risk to the mother’s life.  This is very rare, and in such circumstances there is much less likelihood of conscientious objection, so it may not prove to be troublesome in operation.  On the other hand, government comments accompanying the bill note that medical practitioners do not need to be of the opinion that the risk to the woman’s life “is inevitable or immediate.”  The more broadly this interpretation is construed, the more likely it is that conflicts of conscience will occur.

While the proposed bill is the product of the controversy generated by the death of Savita Halippanavar in Galway in October of last year, it does not appear to propose anything that would have made a difference to the outcome of that case.  Her death was caused by a particularly virulent infection that is not normally found in maternity settings.  An emergency induction of the kind contemplated by Head 3 in the proposed bill was legal at that time and had been decided upon when she spontaneously delivered a stillborn daughter.  (See A “medical misadventure” in Ireland: Deaths of Savita and Prasa Halappanavar)

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