Clock ticking on abortion legislation

Tuesday 30 April 2013 10.31
A real fear of change is causing intense worry among many in Leinster House
A real fear of change is causing intense worry among many in Leinster House

Yes TDs and Senators hear daily that legislating for the X Case is not going to take new regulations on limited abortion beyond the bounds of the constitution.

Yet several of them dread the weeks ahead.

Although a compromise between Labour and Fine Gael seems inevitable on the draft form of this legislation, the outstanding difficulties this divisive social issue still poses cannot be underestimated.

RTÉ's Micheál Lehane examines political efforts to legislate for the X Case

In some ways the second last line of Labour Party TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s statement at the weekend gets to the crux of the problem.

He wrote “We were the only party to include a commitment to legislate for the X Case in our pre-election manifesto.”

Labour’s partners in Government made no such promise. In fact the clear signal from them during the election campaign in early 2011 was that this legislation wouldn’t happen on their watch.

Therefore it’s clear that notwithstanding the judgment of the European Courts, some in Fine Gael hoped this legislation would not come to pass.

The death of Savita Halappanavar starkly illustrated to many of the party’s TDs that doctors required legal certainty on when they can carry out a termination.

So the section of the legislation that provides this clarity for medical emergencies will meet with little if any resistance.

What most concerns a considerable number of TDs and Senators in Fine Gael is the inclusion of a suicide risk as grounds for an abortion.

This is a core part of the X Case judgement and the Government has been unambiguous that it will form part of the legislation.

The fear is not confined to the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Influential voices from outside that group have made expressed opposition too.

Former party leader and Taoiseach John Bruton said he believes legislation that deals with the suicide risk is “not consistent with the plain words of the constitution.” A statement that echoes the views of some of his erstwhile colleagues.

That was evident when the Oireachtas Health Committee held its initial hearings last January.

Those against the measure claim that all the medical evidence presented to the Committee suggested that abortion was not a suitable treatment for a woman who is suicidal.

Those in favour of the legislation say the X Case proves otherwise. What’s more they believe it’s impossible to meet the binding requirements of the European Courts without including this new provision in the law.

So the Government has to come up with a way to allow a woman exercise her constitutional right. But it too has take account of what Health Minister Dr James Reilly described in a Dáil answer recently as the: “sensitivity of the topic, the complex constitutional and legal issues involved, and the political interest in this area.”

Thus the early drafting of this legislation looked at the possibility of having six doctors to assess if a pregnant woman was suicidal. The proposal angered the Labour Party and a leading psychiatrist said it sounded like a “sick joke.”

More talks between the coalition parties took place to try to find a solution. It remains the most contentious point of the legislation but the compromise between Labour and Fine Gael will have a lesser number of doctors involved in the process.

But will that be sufficient to convince the overwhelming majority of Fine Gael TDs and Senators to vote for the legislation, most likely sometime before the summer?

While some reports estimate that more than a dozen Fine Gael politicians oppose the legislation, most within the party believe that far fewer would be prepared to go the distance and vote against the Government.

A number TDs would like a free vote on this issue but the Taoiseach is adamant that won’t happen.

The option of abstaining on the vote is also not a runner it seems.

As one TD speaking after last week’s heated Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting put it, “there’ll be no chance of not turning up on the night. We’re going to be whipped into line. But some have already boxed themselves into a corner on this and it’s hard to see how they can get out of it without voting no.”

There is a fear too in the biggest Government party that Fianna Fáil could find problems with parts of the legislation after it is published.

The party has studiously avoided taking a position on this to date, but Party leader Micheál Martin has said they will play a constructive role in the debate on the Protection of Maternal Life Bill.

Still it’s possible that they could find a flaw in the legislation and vote against it. For many rural Fine Gael TDs such a move would in the words of one of them: “hang us out to dry.”

It’s just one more political fear that the Government has to consider when finalising this legislation. If they succeed in getting a broad compromise though, they will have achieved something viewed as unattainable by six previous Governments.

Keywords: abortion