DUBLIN — Bearing rosary beads and placards declaring "Kill the bill! Not the child," more than 35,000 anti-abortion activists marched Saturday through Dublin to demand that the Irish government scrap plans to legalize terminations for women in life-threatening pregnancies.
Demonstrators from across Ireland, a predominantly Catholic island of 6.5 million, marched for two hours through the capital to Leinster House, the parliament building, where lawmakers next week are expected pass the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Speakers demanded that the government put its bill to a national referendum. "Let us vote!" the crowd chanted.
The two-year-old coalition government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny drafted the bill following last year's death of a miscarrying woman in an Irish hospital. Three investigations since have determined that Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, died from blood poisoning one week after admission for a miscarriage. Doctors denied her pleas for an abortion, even though her uterus had ruptured, because the 17-week-old fetus still had a heartbeat. By the time it stopped, investigations concluded, Halappanavar already had contracted a lethal dose of septicemia.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter said Saturday that, had the bill been law last year, Halappanavar might have received a prompt abortion and survived. He appealed to anti-abortion rebels in the main government Fine Gael party to accept the bill or abstain from the final vote expected Wednesday night. The bill received overwhelming backing in an initial vote this week.
Ireland outlaws abortion, a position underscored by a 1986 referendum amending the constitution to declare that the unborn have a right to life. But the Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that the constitution equally defends the pregnant woman's right to live, therefore life-saving abortions were legal.
Crucially, Ireland's highest court said this meant a woman should receive an abortion even if the only threat to her life was caused by her own suicide threats. Six governments since have refused to pass legislation backing that 1992 judgment, leaving obstetricians divided and confused over whether certain life-saving abortions can be performed legally.
In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland's failure to legislate meant pregnant women in dangerous medical conditions were forced to travel overseas, chiefly to neighboring England, for abortions. It said travel and bureaucratic delays meant some women's medical conditions worsened unnecessarily.
The government bill would permit an abortion for a suicidal woman if a panel of three doctors — one obstetrician and two psychiatrists — unanimously agree that the woman's threats are real. Abortion rights advocates say this rule means women in such circumstances still will travel to England, where abortion was legalized in 1967.
But those marching Saturday warned that women would conspire with sympathetic doctors to fake suicide threats, putting Ireland on a slippery slope to wider abortion access. Ireland is just one of two European Union members, alongside Malta, that outlaws the practice.
Before the march, Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin led a central Dublin church in prayers for Ireland to keep abortion illegal. But in a nuanced sermon Martin told the crowd, among them families sitting on the floor beside packed pews, that pro-life campaigners must be careful not to come across as heartless to those on the other side of the debate.
Martin said those seeking to keep abortion out of Ireland must make their case "not through slogans but through the witness of life that we give." If not, he said, "what we say will appear, to quote Pope Francis, as being cold, impersonal and oppressive for people's day-to-day lives."