Abortion bill lowers political temperature

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore speaking to media after the publication of heads of Bills in the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 , at Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore speaking to media after the publication of heads of Bills in the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 , at Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson


The political temperature on the abortion issue cooled considerably yesterday as politicians of all parties digested the heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013.

A number of the Fine Gael TDs who had been expressing concern about how the Bill would deal with the threat of suicide were reassured by the restrictive regime outlined in the legislation, although some remain doubtful.

Weeks of speculation about the likely contents of the Bill had ramped up tension between the Coalition parties and created internal divisions within them but the publication of the legislation has steadied nerves.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore delivered a unified and coherent message when they explained the contents of the legislation to the media yesterday morning.

Minister for Health James Reilly and the two Labour Ministers of State directly involved in the process of drafting the legislation, Alex White and Kathleen Lynch, reinforced the message in their public comments and their reassurances to party colleagues.

The political problem facing the Ministers involved in the process was to devise a solution that would be acceptable to the broad swathe of conservatively minded Fine Gael TDs, while also being acceptable to the Labour parliamentary party, which contains a number of TDs who favour a relatively liberal abortion regime.

In the end the heads of the Bill that emerged look like being acceptable to the vast majority of Government TDs, restrictive enough to please most in Fine Gael while honouring the core Labour Party commitment to legislate.

Fractious debates
An important consideration for TDs of both parties is a belief that the public mood on the issue has changed since the fractious debates on the issue in previous decades. While most of them are being lobbied hard by anti-abortion campaigners, they are reporting that the majority of their constituents are not engaged by the issue at all.

A handful of Labour TDs and Senators were a little unhappy at the restrictive nature of the Bill but the overall mood at the parliamentary party meeting yesterday afternoon was strongly supportive.

“The bottom line is that we have delivered on our election promise to legislate for the X case and that is an achievement after all the years of prevarication on the issue,” said one rural Labour TD after the meeting.

On the Fine Gael side some of those who had earlier expressed concerns, such as Tom Hayes from Tipperary South and Jim Daly from Cork South West, said their fears had been allayed by the terms of the Bill.

Others, such as Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin and Galway Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, continued to express fears that the suicide clause could open the door to abortion on demand.

Galway West TD Brian Walsh, who said last weekend he would vote against the Bill, met the Taoiseach yesterday evening. Later he was the first backbencher to speak at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting when he apologised to his fellow TDs for the way his announcement had put them under unnecessary pressure. However, he continued to express fears about the long-term impact of the legislation.

Today the focus will shift to Fianna Fáil when its TDs consider their approach to the Bill. After the ardfheis last weekend, at which four strongly worded anti-abortion motions were passed, it appeared that the party was poised to oppose the legislation.

However, party health spokesman Billy Kelleher issued a statement hinting that the party might back the legislation. Mr Kelleher welcomed the Government’s decision to publish the Bill and noted that article 40.3.3 of the Constitution will remain intact.

“Fianna Fáil has played a constructive role in this debate up to this point and is determined to continue to do so. The parliamentary party will meet to consider the detail of the heads of Bill this week, with these discussions informing our position.

“Fianna Fáil has continually stated its determination not to play politics with such an important issue and we restate that determination,” said Mr Kelleher.

Party leader Micheál Martin will have a dilemma as a number of his TDs have strong views on the issue and may even opt to allow a free vote on the issue.

Call for clarity
Sinn Féin gave a strong indication that it will support the legislation, with Gerry Adams saying it wanted “clarity for medical practitioners and protection for pregnant women whose lives are at risk”.

Party health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin also said the details now needed to be considered carefully but he indicated that Sinn Féin would back the Bill.

All in all it looks as if the Bill will ultimately command a huge majority when it comes to a Dáil vote, although all of the parties might find some of their members voting the other way.

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