Will there be another abortion referendum?

Coalition has no appetite for new abortion battle

Protesters at a pro-choice rally in O’Connell Street, Dublin, this week. Photograph: Aidan Crawley 20/08/2014...News...Protestors pictured at a pro abortion rally in O’Connell Street, Dublin today.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Protesters at a pro-choice rally in O’Connell Street, Dublin, this week. Photograph: Aidan Crawley 20/08/2014...News...Protestors pictured at a pro abortion rally in O’Connell Street, Dublin today.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

Not under the current Government, although the question will linger in public debate. In spite of the difficulties presented by the latest abortion controversy, there is simply no appetite in the Coalition to revisit the issue before the next general election.

The election must be held by the spring of 2016, further reinforcing the sense in political circles that the question is far too toxic to confront as the Government heads into the final phase of its mandate.

The current case surfaced last weekend. A young woman who said she was suicidal due to pregnancy after rape was refused an abortion by an expert panel set up under a contentious new law which was enacted last year to implement the X-case ruling of the Supreme Court in 1992.

Political sensitivity

The fact that 21 years passed before legislation was introduced illustrates the political sensitivity of these matters.

The Health Service Executive has called for a report to establish the facts of the present case, the exact sequence of events and “any learnings” that can be gleaned from it. Terms of reference for the inquiry were published yesterday.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar will provide an update to the Cabinet on September 3rd, when it meets for the first time after the summer break.

Divisive legislation

At issue is the care given to the woman, whose baby was delivered this month by Caesarean section at 25 weeks gestation. This turns on the operation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, the most divisive legislation introduced by the Government since it took power.

A rebellion in Fine Gael over the law led to the loss of several TDs and Senators, among them former minister of state for Europe Lucinda Creighton.

Other Fine Gael figures had wavered before voting for the legislation. Taoiseach Enda Kenny overcame this challenge to his authority, but he would not relish another battle over abortion.

The HSE report is awaited. Yet the case has already led to fresh calls for another referendum. These have come from the Labour wing of the Coalition, as well as from eminent doctors and campaigners.

The demands vary, from outright repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion to the insertion of provisions dealing with fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.

Still, Labour has signalled quite strongly that it is not going to press for a plebiscite within the lifetime of the current administration. There appears, therefore, to be little prospect of conflict with Fine Gael on the referendum question.

This is the realpolitik right now. The argument is made that the Coalition has no mandate to propose a vote, but governments routinely take action without a direct mandate when they see fit.