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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 18:24 GMT 19:24 UK
Ireland wavers on abortion
The Aurora
Aurora: The ship promises to return by year's end
By Louise Williams in Dublin

Dismissed as a "publicity stunt" by Ireland's Minister for Health, the Dutch abortion ship - the Aurora - has sailed out of Ireland for the Netherlands, leaving controversy over the Irish ban on abortion in its wake.

The ship failed to realise its goal of carrying out abortions in international waters 12 miles off the Irish coast, but the Marie Stopes pregnancy advice clinic in Dublin said it was "inundated" with enquiries while the boat was docked in Dublin and Cork.

Meanwhile, the Irish debate about abortion has also been stirred by a new opinion poll, and by signs that the Irish medical profession could be preparing to soften its blanket opposition to abortion.

The poll, by Lansdowne Market Research in Dublin, suggests that only 22% of Irish people want abortion to be widely available.

Opinion shift

But 79% of those questioned said abortion should be allowed in very limited circumstances - if the mother's life is in danger due to medical complications, if she has been raped, or if there is a risk she will commit suicide.

Aurora got a hostile reaction from the Irish press
The Aurora got a hostile reaction from the Irish press
This is the first time that public opinion has shown support for abortion legislation.

The Irish Medical Council, traditionally a bastion of pro-life supporters, is locked in negotiations on the issue.

On the table is a proposal to allow abortion if the foetus is proved to be "not viable".

For Irish women with unwanted pregnancies, the only option currently available is to travel abroad - it's estimated that at least 6,000 do so every year, most heading for Britain.

Existing legislation bans abortion on Irish territory under any circumstances, however a series of amendments to the Irish constitution have muddied the legal waters.

Government promise

In 1983, the first amendment defended the "right to life of the unborn", but court cases in the early 1990s challenged that absolute right.

These court cases led to further amendments which grant women the right to travel to have an abortion, and allow abortion - albeit abortion abroad - if there is a risk a pregnant woman will attempt suicide.

During the last election, the government promised to amend the constitution for a fourth time, in an attempt to clear up the legal mess.

Pro-life campaigners have been campaigning for a clearly worded ban on abortion to be introduced into the constitution by referendum in order to rule out what they call the "suicide threat" - the possibility that women will claim they are suicidal in order to obtain an abortion with the support of their local health board.

Each previous referendum pitted pro-life against pro-choice groups in a bitter struggle, and with general elections expected next year, it's not surprising the government is now dragging its feet on this controversial issue - particularly after its failure to ratify the Treaty of Nice.

   

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See also:

27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
15 Jun 01 | Europe
No abortions on 'abortion ship'
16 May 01 | Americas
House backs Bush on abortion
05 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ireland
30 Jun 99 | World population
Viewpoints: Population control
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