A bishop and pro-life activists in Ireland have said that any legislation to provide abortion in limited situations would inevitably lead to widespread abortion.
Bishop William Murphy of Kerry said during a radio interview: “If abortion is introduced, even on a very limited basis, it becomes widespread.”
Days earlier, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny promised “swift action” after a report by a study group recommended that the government introduce legislation to provide for abortion in limited circumstances.
In practice, abortion is illegal in Ireland. However, a controversial 1992 Supreme Court judgment – known as the X case – found that there is a constitutional right to abortion where there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide, up to birth.
Six successive governments have not acted on the issue. However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify when women can access abortion under the 1992 ruling.
The expert group was charged in January with advising the government in response to the European Court ruling.
The Pro Life Campaign, Ireland’s largest pro-life lobby, has said that it does not support legislation or statutory regulations on abortion in line with the expert group report.
Cora Sherlock, the campaign’s deputy chairwoman, described the 1992 Supreme Court decision as “deeply flawed”.
Instead, the Pro Life Campaign is advocating for guidelines for medical professionals to consider.
She said the organisation has consistently supported women receiving the medical treatment needed during pregnancy as well as for practical steps to protect the life of the unborn child.
“On the one hand, you have abortion where there is never an intention to save the life of the baby,” she said. “The only intention is to end the life of the baby, and there’s no treatment being given to the mother.
“On the other hand, you have medical treatment which may have the unwanted side effect of ending the life of the unborn child. But that is an unwanted side effect. It is not something that anyone wishes for, and it is deeply regretted when it happens.
“That is what the majority of people in this country have said in consistent independent opinion polls that they support, and that will not be achieved through legislation or regulation,” Sherlock said.
Ireland has been gripped by the issue of abortion in recent weeks after a 31-year-old woman, Savita Halappanavar, died while being treated for a miscarriage. Her husband claims that she was denied the termination of her pregnancy because of Ireland’s ban on abortion and that the decision led to her death.
However, medical professionals have pointed out that current Irish law allows for intervention to save the life of a mother even if it results in the unavoidable and unintentional death of an unborn child.
In his radio interview, Bishop Murphy accused campaigners seeking to legalise abortion of attempting to “hijack” the tragedy.
“The suggestion that, because of this country’s pro-life ethos, pregnant women are denied medical treatment is simply not true,” he said.
The bishop warned that if the government adopted legislation based on the results of the X case, unlimited access to abortion would be introduced to Ireland.
“That will be the crack in the dam or the beginning of the slippery slope,” he added.
Pro-life activists want the government to move to overturn the 1992 judgment.
Caroline Simons, a lawyer who advises pro-life groups, said: “The most important option, not contained in the report, is to reverse the Supreme Court decision of 1992, which would allow for abortion up to birth.
“If people do not want to introduce such an abortion regime in this country, this is the only political option, and it has to be confronted,” she said.
Doing so would mean ultimately putting the question of overturning the X case to the people by way of a constitutional referendum.
Ms Simons said she supported medical guidelines rather than legislation.
“These guidelines can explain the underlying principles of medical care in Ireland and, in particular, that women in pregnancy should receive all essential medical treatment needed to safeguard their lives, even where this unavoidably results in the death of the baby, but where the duty of care to preserve the life of the baby as far as practicable is also upheld,” she said.
“The X case is being presented by those who support abortion as very restrictive. The reality is that the X case does not provide for a duty of care to preserve the life of the baby in the course of medical interventions to safeguard the life of the mother,” she explained.
The issue is proving contentious for Mr Kenny. Reports from a meeting of senior leaders within his political party indicate that many MPs would defy the government and refuse to support an abortion law.
The Irish Parliament is planning to discuss the issue in January. A motion calling for legalised abortion, introduced by an independent member of Parliament, was expected to be defeated in a vote in late November.