DUBLIN Ireland should allow limited access to abortion by clarifying the conditions under which women can terminate pregnancies, experts have concluded in a report that will fuel a debate which has split the country and led to tensions within the coalition.
Abortion was banned in all circumstances in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland by a 1983 constitutional amendment, but when the ban was challenged in 1992 by a 14-year-old rape victim, the Supreme Court ruled a termination was permitted when the woman's life was at risk, including from suicide.
Successive governments have however failed to clarify the conditions under which the mother's life could be judged to be at risk.
The issue has been highlighted in the past fortnight by the death of an Indian woman in Ireland who was denied an abortion of her dying fetus and later died of blood poisoning.
The death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar re-ignited the abortion debate in Ireland and highlighted the lack of clarity in Irish law that leaves doctors in the legally risky position to decide when an abortion can be carried out and, critics say, means their personal beliefs can play a role in their decision.
The European Court of Human Rights said in 2010 that Ireland must clarify its law, a ruling which led to the commissioning of the experts' report well before the death of Halappanavar.
The report, due to be published on Tuesday, but seen by the Sunday Independent and the Sunday Business Post newspapers, emphasized that a woman is still only lawfully entitled to an abortion in Ireland when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.
But the panel of experts said an appeal process should be set up for women who have been refused an abortion. The group also says that the minister of health should specify particular centers where terminations can take place.
"Leaving not just medics, but women in a very vulnerable position is no longer an option," Kathleen Lynch, the Irish republic's junior minister for disability, equality and mental health told Reuters on Sunday.
"We are going to have to act, and act not just responsibly but as quickly as possible," she said.
The government has scrambled to stem public criticism of its handling of the Halappanavar case and was forced into an embarrassing u-turn this week when it removed three Galway-based consultants from the health service inquiry following criticism from her husband, Praveen Halappanavar.
A new investigation was opened on Friday, but it was rejected by Halappanavar who wants a public inquiry.
The report comes after a wave of anti-abortion protests and lobbying since the panel of experts was set up in January.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose ruling Fine Gael party made an election pledge not to introduce new laws allowing abortion, said last week he would not be rushed into a decision.
The issue has raised tensions between Fine Gael and the more socially liberal Labour Party, its junior coalition partner, which has campaigned for a clarification of the country's abortion rules.
"I don't think that any politician on this particular issue is very overjoyed about any of the options that are available, nevertheless, you have to legislate, that's your job ... we have to make sure this time we get it right," said Labour's Lynch.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)