Protests highlight 'high stakes' in Irish abortion debate

Several hundred people gathered in Dublin city centre on Wednesday night to demonstrate in favour of abortion legislation in the Republic, as did groups in London and Cork.

Image caption Savita Halappanavar's widower claimed her request for an abortion was refused

Any liberalisation of the laws is potentially seen as a high stakes move for the Irish government.

But what about the women living in the Republic who have had to travel abroad for a termination?

In 2009, Ruth Bowie and her husband were expecting their first child.

On her own instinct she booked a scan earlier than usual. What followed came as a shock.

"We were told that the baby had anencephaly, a condition where the baby's brain and skull does not develop properly and it is incompatible with life."

"We asked the consultant, 'what do we do now?' "

"He said 'we'll continue to look after you like a normal pregnancy or if you don't want to continue with the pregnancy you can choose to travel.' "

In the Republic's medical parlance, 'travel' means go to the UK for an abortion.

It is what thousands of Irish women have done for decades and what, on average, 10 Irish women do every day.

However, the circumstances leading to the recent death of a 31-year-old first time mother in Galway has moved the issue of abortion from out of sight to centre stage.

Many of the people that protested outside Leinster House in Dublin over the lack of legislation on abortion were angry and ashamed.

"I'm very ashamed, I saw the headlines in the Spectator and they said 'cowardice masking as piety' and I think that covers it very well" said Mary Dunleavy.

"A woman has died unnecessarily because of the lack of courage of our politicians."

Julie Harper had travelled from Kildare to attend the protest.

"I stood crying in my kitchen wondering how this could happen in 2012 in a so called civilised country."

Abortion is illegal in the Republic except where there is serious risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother.

But there are only guidelines, no legislation, that would give certainty to doctors as to when terminations can be carried out and under what circumstances.

"Despite our constitutional and legislative issues over the years we've actually managed to get to a very good situation where we have consistently among the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world" said Senator Ronan Mullen.

The independent senator is opposed to abortion.

"There are problems, like the fact that some Irish women go to Britain for abortions, we need to provide more support so that people don't feel that they have no other option but abortion.

"I think it would be wrong to portray this as some kind of outdated religious country when, in fact, we're consistently among the best in the world in the way we care for both patients."

Image caption Several hundred people gathered in Dublin to call for Irish abortion legislation

The Irish government had not completely side stepped what is a political landmine.

They are awaiting the findings of an expert group set up to advise on how to bring legal clarity to the issue of abortion, but there are high stakes at play.

"It cleaves families, areas, political parties and would also split the Irish government coalition down the middle if it came to it" said Irish Times journalist, Paul Cullen.

"It has a capacity which is almost incendiary to divide opinion in Irish life."

But the expert group's recommendations are not expected to have any bearing in pregnancies for lethal abnormality cases, as happened to Ruth Bowie.

"No one can ever change the diagnosis we've been given but you can change how we are treated" she said.

"We can be treated with dignity and not shoved off and made feel like criminals.

"I would have a very strong faith and I get very angry when people quote the Bible at you and say, 'it's say in the Bible, do not murder', but it also says in the Bible do not judge and I would say don't judge a situation unless you've been in it.

"I believe that God is caring, compassionate and loving and I know that he understands what I did and that it was right for me and my family".