A free vote on abortion Bill would be healthy precedent for democracy

Column: If it opposes this legislation Fianna Fáil risks alienating the mainstream middle ground


Chairing a panel discussion at the recent Fianna Fáil ardfheis I couldn’t resist asking the political scientist Tim Bale how he thought the party should handle the current abortion controversy. Bale responded that the politically astute thing for Fianna Fáil to do was not to see the abortion issue in political terms but to do what it believed was the right thing on the issue itself. Playing politics with issues like abortion was unattractive to the electorate, he concluded.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 will be law before the summer no matter what Fianna Fáil does. Even if several Fine Gael backbenchers vote against the legislation it will still pass by a massive majority with most of Fine Gael, all of the Labour Party, almost all of Sinn Féin, and most of the Independents likely to support it in both the Dáil and Seanad.

Some argue that there is political advantage for Fianna Fáil in opposing the Bill because it would position it to benefit from anti-abortion voters disenchanted with Fine Gael for reneging on its commitments before the last election not to legislate for the X case.

Middle ground
On the other hand, if it opposes this legislation Fianna Fáil risks alienating the mainstream middle ground who now support or are at least reconciled to the reality that legislating for the X case, including the risk of suicide, is now necessary. Positioning itself against that trend is likely to cost Fianna Fáil more than any gains from those sectors of the electorate who oppose this Bill.

It would be unfair to think that TDs and Senators in Fianna Fáil or in other parties see this in purely political terms. Most are genuinely struggling with the issue in itself. The surprising thing is that Fianna Fáil and indeed Fine Gael have got around to comprehensively discussing this issue at their parliamentary parties only this week.

All political parties had more than ample time to address themselves to the need to legislate for abortion on grounds of suicide risk since the last referendum on the issue was defeated in 2002. Micheál Martin was minister for health in the government that brought forward that referendum, which would have given constitutional status to legislation providing for terminations when there was a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman, but not where that risk was a threat of suicide.

On aspects other than the suicide risk the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill 2002, which interestingly was supported by the Catholic bishops, was less cumbersome and less restrictive in its provisions than those in the heads of legislation published this week. It left the details of how the risk to the life of the mother would be certified to regulations.

In making the case for that referendum and for rowing back on the suicide ground Bertie Ahern and indeed Micheál Martin repeatedly cited the so-called “slippery slope” argument that legislating for termination on grounds of suicide would, as Ahern put it, “commence an inevitable slide towards social abortion in Ireland”.

Martin in a speech in the Dáil on the 2002 referendum Bill spoke of how the evidence considered in the preparation of the Green Paper, and the testimony and conclusions of the all-party committee “[did] not support the maintenance of suicide risk as a ground for abortion in Ireland and would not justify the enactment of a legal basis for abortion to avoid such a risk”.

He added that “providing for abortion where a woman’s mental health may be at risk is one of the principal grounds on which abortion is permitted in other countries and experience elsewhere strongly suggests that a change in the law to deal, on compassionate grounds, with a small number of exceptional cases can be exploited to allow wide-scale application”.

Anti-abortion campaigners will no doubt seek to suggest that in order to be consistent with this position Martin should oppose the Government’s legislation.

On the contrary, in light of the outcome of the 2002 referendum and developments since then the more consistent position would be to either demand a further referendum (which is not going to happen) or to support the legislation. In insisting on the need for such a referendum in 2002, Martin and his government colleagues were recognising that abortion on grounds of threatened suicide was lawful in Ireland since the X case. During that referendum campaign, Fianna Fáil threatened that if the referendum did not pass it would have to introduce legislation to provide for the full effect of the X case.

Diverse voices
The other reality is that Fianna Fáil and indeed Fine Gael would have avoided their current predicament if they had allowed from the outset, a free vote in the Dáil and Seanad on this legislation. Many diverse voices have called for this.

By allowing a free vote on this legislation, both Government and Opposition parties would be setting a healthy precedent for our democracy.

Twitter: @noelwhelan

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