Irish parliamentarians passed a groundbreaking law early on Thursday allowing limited abortion rights in the republic.

Enda Kenny and his coalition government pushed through the protection of life in pregnancy bill, which will allow for abortions only when a woman's life is under threat if her pregnancy continues or if she is suicidal.

Despite threats of excommunication from cardinals and bishops, the privately devout Catholic prime minister eventually won the vote after a marathon two-day debate in the Dáil.

Members voted by 127 to 31 to legalise abortion in cases of medical emergencies as well as the risk of suicide.

However, pro-choice and anti-abortion groups have already threatened court cases to challenge the new law.

The legislation which passed through the Dáil after 24 hours of tortuous debate will not stop the annual abortion trail from Ireland to Britain.

According to Irish department of health figures released on Thursday, about 4,000 Irish women travelled to British hospitals and clinics to terminate their pregnancies last year. They included 124 who were under 18.

The new law also does not include women who were raped, meaning grim traffic across the Irish Sea for abortions will continue.

Mara Clarke, director of the London-based Abortion Support Network, a charity that raises money to help women afford the £400-£2,000 it costs to travel and pay privately for an abortion in England, condemned the restriction on an Irish woman's right to choose. She said: "Given that the Irish government has now had more than 22 years to legislate on the X case, I'm not sure what the hold up is but then I'm not an expert on Irish abortion law.

"I am an expert in what happens to women when access to abortion is restricted. Even if this law is enacted, only a very, very small percentage of women who need abortions will be able to access them in Ireland.

"Women pregnant as result of rape, women with fatal foetal anomalies, couples who simply can't afford to care for a (or in most cases, another) child, will still be left behind.

"This week alone, Abortion Support Network has heard from a woman whose abusive husband hid her passport so she couldn't travel for an abortion, a woman who considered crashing her car to induce a miscarriage, and a couple whose very wanted pregnancy had catastrophic foetal anomalies - and these were only three of the 10 women who contacted us last week."

Sinn Féin TD (MP) Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin predicted that it was only a matter of time before a case emerged through the courts challenging that aspect of the new bill that criminalises abortion.

Anyone procuring or seeking an abortion could face up to 14 years in prison. He said a case might result from a young woman taking abortion pills who might seek to challenge the penalty.

Independent leftwing TD Catherine Murphy said the criminalisation of women seeking abortions could open up Ireland to fresh challenges in the European court of human rights.

Terminations For Medical Reasons - the campaign group for women who seek abortions because their babies will die if their pregnancies continue - accused the government of lacking courage to include their cases in the legislation.

"We are enormously saddened that their decision means that it could now be years before this is changed in legislation. With each week that passes, more grieving women and couples will have to leave Ireland to receive medical care," a TMFR spokesperson said.

During the debate, the Europe minister Lucinda Creighton was expelled from the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Creighton voted against the abortion law reform and is now expected to lose her ministerial job as well. On her way out of the Dáil, Creighton shook Kenny's hand saying: "I'm very sad, but I genuinely wish Enda Kenny and all the government the very best."

After leaving, she reminded Fine Gael that they had made an electoral promise in 2011 not to introduce abortion into Ireland.