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Abortion debate heats up in Ireland as law revision looms

A team of experts is set to issue recommendations on how to clarify once-staunchly Catholic Ireland's abortion laws, spurring both pro-life and pro-choice groups to take to the streets.

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Ireland does not seem an obvious locale for heated debate over abortion laws. After all, abortion has been illegal in the once-staunchly Catholic country since before its creation in 1922.

But a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling complicated that ban by permitting abortion in cases where the pregnant woman's life is at risk. Despite this, successive governments did not take legal steps that reflected that judgment, and abortion has become a political "third rail," even after a 2010 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment forced the issue.

Now, a government-appointed "expert group" is nearing its long-delayed announcement of recommendations on how to clarify Irish abortion laws and comply with the ECHR judgment – and has touched off the abortion debate in Ireland once again.

What was once a simple, if highly divisive, matter of rights – the right to life vs. the right to individual autonomy – has shifted into softer, therapeutic territory: a debate over what approach best serves the interests of the expectant mother.

A conflicted legal history

Ireland's law against abortion was inherited from a British law enacted in 1861. It has never gone off the books, making Ireland one of only two nations in the European Union to ban abortion completely (the other being Malta). Ireland also amended its Constitution in 1983 to recognize a right to life in the unborn, "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother."

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