Ireland to legalise abortion

Ireland was steadying itself for a hugely emotional political debate today, after the government took the first steps towards legalising abortion.

The change in the law follows the case of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant Indian woman who died in October after her repeated requests for an abortion were refused.

"I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened. We must fulfil our duty of care towards them," James Reilly, health minister, said.

"For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman's life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."

The government intends to repeal legislation making abortion a criminal act and introduce regulations setting out when doctors can perform a termination. The regulations will allow abortion where a woman's life is at risk, including by suicide.

The proposals will pit politicians in the ruling Fine Gael party against each other, with the party split roughly down the middle on the issue – but they will forced to vote for the government motion regardless.

"There will be no free vote on this," prime minister Enda Kenny confirmed.

The debate will be even fiercer outside the party. Ronan Mullen, an independent Irish senator, gave some indication of the tenor the row when he compared abortion to the killing of children in the Sandy Hook shooting.

"I find it entirely appropriate that we would join in solidarity with the people, with the children who died in Connecticut," he said.

"Let's be sincere about that. And let's not slip into a double-think either, however, where we forget a whole category of children in our own country."

Current Irish law makes abortion a criminal offence unless it is performed to save the life of the mother, but in practise women needing abortions come up against a confusing and occasionally prejudicial system weighted against the procedure.

Halappanavar's husband told how nurses said "this is a Catholic country" when they pleaded for an abortion. Europe's human rights judges have criticised Ireland for failing to provide an accessible process for women to establish whether they qualify for a legal abortion.

Draft legislation will be prepared in the new year and is expected to be ready by Easter.