Vote sought to alter 141-year-old law
DUBLIN, Republic of Ireland -- Abortion has been illegal in the Republic of Ireland since 1861 except in a few situations.
Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act it was made a criminal offence for a woman to procure a miscarriage or for any person to perform an abortion or to aid or abet the procuring of an abortion.
Nobody has been charged with a criminal offence under the Act since the 1950s. But in 1974 the Irish Supreme Court said that abortion, as well as being illegal, was also contrary to the constitution.
However, a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1992 in the case of X, a 14-year-old girl whose pregnancy was judged to have made her suicidal, said a woman should also have the right of abortion if there was a risk she would kill herself.
The referendum held on Wednesday was the fifth plebiscite on the issue in Ireland in 20 years.
If passed, the new amendment would have restricted abortions to those deemed medically essential to protect the mother's physical -- but not her mental -- health.
It was a government attempt to introduce a constitutional amendment affirming that a threat of suicide was not a ground for abortion.
In addition, anyone aiding or procuring an abortion would have been liable for 12 years in prison, although women would have still been free to travel abroad for abortions.
The 1992 ruling was a controversial interpretation of a 1983 constitutional amendment guaranteeing an equal right to life for the mother and her unborn child.
Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, is vehemently against abortion.
"We believe the majority of people want to protect the lives of both women and unborn children and that they do not favour any moves toward more freely available abortion," he said before the referendum.
But Catherine Heaney, assistant chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, said: "Those who can afford to travel will do so, but this repressive amendment will hurt the most vulnerable, the most desperate cases, such as young girls too scared to tell anyone about their pregnancies, the poverty-stricken or women in psychiatric care.
"Self-induced abortion is already a crime under an 1861 law. But elevating it to the only crime defined in the constitution, apart from treason, means a rapist may well serve less time in jail than the woman he raped."
Undertaker Tom Cournane, 72, who lives in Cournane, County Kerry, buried a newborn baby found on a beach in 1984 in a case that became a national tragedy.
The infant, who came to be known as "the Kerry baby," had been stabbed 17 times with a needle.
Despite suspicions the boy was killed by a mother who did not want him, Cournane remains against abortion.
He told Reuters: "Naturally there are women left in this horrible state, by themselves. But nothing will justify murder."
Dr Moosajee Bhamjee, a psychiatrist who counsels pregnant women in County Clare, next door to Kerry, said many Irish prefer to "compartmentalise" the issue and therefore see the "Kerry baby" as nothing more than a baby found on a beach.
"They don't link that up with the idea that if the mother had had a choice of abortion, she would have gone to have an abortion," he said.
In 1992, during an audience with Ireland's Catholic bishops, Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of abortion.
He said: "The right to life does not depend on a particular religious conviction. It is a primary, natural, inalienable right that springs from the very dignity of every human being."
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