DUBLIN — Ireland's justice minister declared Wednesday that the country must end the "great cruelty" that requires women by law to give birth to infants who are the products of rape or have fatal genetic defects, as the head of state mulled whether to sign the predominantly Catholic country's first-ever bill on abortion.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter predicted that legislators — fresh from months of grueling debate over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill — would be forced to face the question again, because the Irish public wants wider access to abortion for the most difficult cases.
The bill, overwhelmingly passed by both houses of the Irish parliament this month, permits abortions but only in cases where doctors deem the woman's life at risk from continued pregnancy.
The government took action after a 31-year-old Indian woman died last year in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion during a protracted miscarriage that ended in toxic shock and massive organ failure.
President Michael D. Higgins received the bill Wednesday and has one week to decide whether to sign it into law or refer it to the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of Ireland's laws.
Shatter said he sided with those liberal lawmakers who would have liked the bill to legalize abortion also in cases where the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest, or when DNA tests or scans confirm that the fetus cannot survive following birth because of missing organs or other deadly defects.
Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion means that women in those circumstances either must bear the child to full term or travel to another European nation, chiefly neighboring Britain, for a termination.
"Clearly many women who find themselves in these circumstances address this issue by taking the plane or the boat to England," Shatter said, calling this "a British solution to an Irish problem."
"I believe it is a great cruelty that our law creates a barrier to a woman in circumstances where she has a fatal fetal abnormality being able to have a pregnancy terminated ... knowing it has no real prospect of survival following birth," he said.
Shatter was speaking at Ireland's Rape Crisis Center, where he also called for a future referendum to amend the law to permit abortion to end unwanted pregnancies caused by sexual assaults and incest. He said requiring women to carry these fetuses to full term also involved "unacceptable cruelty."
A series of Irish opinion polls this year have registered strong public support for Shatter's view, with more than 80 percent favoring the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal defects.
Ireland is one of only two European Union members, alongside Malta, that outlaws abortion except in life-threatening cases.
The bill principally would close a decades-old confusion in Ireland's law dating to 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that abortions deemed necessary to save a woman's life must be legal, given her own constitutional right to life.
Six straight Irish governments refused to pass supporting legislation, principally because Ireland's highest court cited a woman's threat to commit suicide as one legally acceptable ground for permitting an abortion.
The bill would allow abortions for suicidal women only if a panel of three doctors, including two psychiatrists, unanimously agrees that the woman's threat is serious and can be alleviated only by granting her demand for a termination.
Anti-abortion activists warn that this rule will be exploited by suicide-fakers and biased doctors. Those seeking wider abortion rights in Ireland counter that pregnant women in mental-health crises will remain far more likely to travel to England — where abortion was legalized in 1967 and around 4,000 Irish residents receive abortions annually — rather than subject themselves to awkward, uncertain psychiatric scrutiny on home soil.