The move, unthinkable till few years ago, comes after a huge public outcry over the death of 31-year-old Savita, who died in October at Galway University Hospital. She had been 17-week pregnant and was found to be miscarrying. Savita's husband said she asked repeatedly for a termination of the pregnancy but was refused and was told the foetal heartbeat was still present and "this is a Catholic country". She contracted septicaemia and died on Oct 28.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who represents one of the most traditional rural Catholic constituencies in Ireland, said the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would proceed with a mixture of "legislation with regulation". To ensure the law is passed, the government whip would be applied to MPs in the ruling Fine Gael party which is deeply divided over the proposals.
"There will be no free vote on this," Kenny said, adding the draft legislation would be published in the New Year with a timetable of having the legislation ready by Easter. Ireland's abortion laws are the strictest in Europe and any proposed legislation to decriminalise abortion will stoke furious debate in the country, which remains a staunchly Roman Catholic country. The Irish cabinet's decision follows pressure from the European Court of human rights, which ruled that abortions should be allowed in cases where a woman's life was at risk. Last month, Savita's husband Praveen Halappanavar had said he will move to the European Court of Human Rights for justice. Savita's case is now being investigated by the Irish health authorities.
In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled in the case of a 14-year-old girl made pregnant through rape that abortion could be a legal option to someone who was suicidal. However, successive Irish governments have failed to implement the ruling, mainly out of fear of upsetting the Catholic hierarchy and religious right-wing pressure groups.
Kenny's decision is likely to cause problems within his party as 12 Dail deputies have opposed introducing abortion on the grounds of mothers being suicidal. Anti-abortion groups such as Youth Defence have targeted Fine Gael TDs particularly in rural areas, promising to picket their constituency offices if they break their promise not to introduce abortion in Ireland. Speaking after the Irish cabinet discussed the issue, Health Minister James Reilly said he was very conscious of the sensitivities around the issue.
"I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened," he said.
"We must fulfil our duty of care towards them. For that purpose we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman's life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."
The measures would be based on proposals from the so-called Expert Group. The reforms are expected to allow for terminations where there is a medical risk to a woman's life or when she is thought to be in danger of killing herself. It is unclear whether the law will allow for terminations in cases of rape or sexual abuse.
The expert group recommended that legislation plus regulation would fulfil the requirements of the European convention on human rights and the judgement of the European court in the case of three women who claimed their human rights including the right to life had been put in danger by the abortion ban.
Archbishops criticise move
The four Catholic Archbishops of Ireland, including Cardinal Sean Brady, have slammed the decision of the government. In a joint statement, the bishops said, "If what is being proposed were to become law, the careful balance between the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child in current law and medical practice in Ireland would be fundamentally changed. It would pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children. This can never be morally justified in any circumstances."