November 27, 2012 / 5:36 PM / 5 years ago

Ireland to clarify abortion rules within weeks

* New rules promised after decades of delay

* Move comes in wake of death of woman denied abortion

DUBLIN, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Ireland will clarify its abortion laws within weeks, the government said on Tuesday, as it strives to answer criticism over the death of a woman who was refused an abortion of her dying foetus.

Abortions were 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 a woman’s life was at risk.

Successive governments have since failed to clarify the conditions under which the mother’s life could be judged to be at risk.

“A government decision will be made in relation to this before the end of December and implemented in the new year,” Health Minister James Reilly told journalists. “This issue will not be allowed to drag on.”

The issue of abortion has been highlighted in the past fortnight by the death of 31-year-old Indian woman Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion of her dying foetus at a hospital in Ireland and later died of blood poisoning.

The death re-ignited the abortion debate in Ireland and highlighted the lack of clarity in Irish law.

Critics say the current situation leaves doctors in the legally risky position of deciding when an abortion can be carried out.

The European Court of Human Rights said in 2010 Ireland must clarify its law, a ruling which led to the government to commission an experts’ report on the issue.

The report, which was published on Tuesday, said a woman was still only lawfully entitled to an abortion in Ireland when there was a real and substantial risk to her life.

But the panel of experts said an appeal process should be set up for women who have been refused the procedure.

It said issuing non-statutory guidelines without new legislation - an option that would avoid a possible divisive vote in parliament - could leave the government’s decision open to a court challenge.

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