Ireland allows abortion for first time, but at political cost

Despite broad support for the law in parliament, the debate opened up cracks within several parties.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
Pro-abortion-rights campaigners demonstrate outside the Irish Parliament in Dublin Wednesday ahead of a vote to allow limited abortion in Ireland. Despite much heated debate, the law passed by 127 votes to 31.

After two nights of heated arguments, occasionally descending into farce, the Irish parliament voted to permit abortion in limited circumstances, marking a major change in the country's attitude to the morality of reproductive rights.

Fittingly for two of the hottest days of the year so far, Ireland's parliament debated what may be the hottest issue in the county's political history since independence. As temperatures reached 80 degrees during the day, the heat went on into the night – in parliament at least – as lawmakers discussed the long-awaited Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. 

The bill passed by 127 votes to 31 and will now be sent to Ireland's Senate for further discussion – largely a formality, as the Senate lacks the power to reject the bill. But despite the overwhelming majority, the vote has fractured Irish politics, opening serious divisions inside Ireland's two most significant parties, conservative Fine Gael and centrist Fianna Fáil, and change could be coming to the usually static Irish political landscape. 

The bill includes provisions for abortion if a woman's life is threatened by pregnancy, including by suicide if a panel of psychiatrists judges the threat to be real. It also prescribes a jail term of 14 years for anyone procuring or performing an abortion obtained under false claims.

Campaigners are unimpressed. Anti-abortionists made a failed, last-minute bid to challenge the bill in the courts, while pro-abortion-rights campaigners, while welcoming the law change, say the move is insufficient. "This legislation is not and can not be a viable long term solution to the issue of abortion in Ireland," says Sinéad Ahern of Choice Ireland.

Malta is now the sole European Union member state that entirely bans abortion, though Ireland and Poland still have restrictive regimes. 

Some 166 amendments were discussed and rejected over the course of two nights of heated debate. A final vote was due before Saturday, but in the end occurred just after midnight last night.

Deep divisions

But the battlefield is strewn with casualties: Irish politics is now in disarray as intra-party divisions have opened across the board. 

Five government lawmakers defied their party, which demanded unanimous support for the bill, and voted against – in the process losing their membership of the governing Fine Gael parliamentary group. One, junior minister Lucinda Creighton, lost her ministry as a result of voting against the government on an amendment. Ms. Creighton was widely viewed as a rising star and potential first female prime minister of Ireland. A single Fine Gael lawmaker was not present to vote.

Two Fine Gael members who had been expected to defy orders in the end voted with the government. One, Michelle Mulherin, made a pointed speech in parliament, saying: "I am now faced with either supporting the Bill or being booted out of the party, my party. And I am not going to allow myself to be booted out so I’m supporting this legislation."

The junior government coalition partner, Labour, is unanimously in favor of the change in law, save for one member who accidentally voted against the party whip on an amendment last night amid chaotic scenes.

Among opposition parties there is division. Socialist republican party Sinn Féin supports the bill, albeit with one member defecting. Centrist party Fianna Fáil, which headed the last government, is divided on the issue, and did not impose a party line. 

Ireland's far-left lawmakers, who uniformly support women's right to choose, joined with anti-abortionists in rejecting the bill, doing so on the basis that it doesn't go far enough. Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins described the bill as a "betrayal of women."

By their own reckoning, anti-abortion campaigners say there are 100,000 anti-abortion votes up for grabs at the next election. Opinion polls suggest the overwhelming majority of Irish people support the bill, but not abortion-on-demand.

Tragic history

Tensions have been inflamed by the death of 31-year old Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital in October 2012 after a miscarriage. She had requested an abortion, but was refused. An inquest found she died of septic shock.

Mr. Higgins's former Socialist colleague and now-independent Clare Daly, a leading abortion-rights campaigner who has submitted two private members' bills on abortion to parliament, says the law makes abortions more difficult to obtain, not less.

“In the absence of a referendum to repeal article 40.3.3 of the Constitution – for which we call – we were willing to support legislation in line with the X Case Ruling of 1992. This bill however, will put more obstacles in the way of access to life-saving abortions than are required by the constitution," she said.

Article 40.3.3 of Ireland's constitution, also known as the eighth amendment, is a rule recognizing: "the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother". It was introduced in 1983 after a bitter referendum campaign, with anti-abortion campaigners supporting and pro-choice campaigners against. 

The 1992 X Case ruling interpreted the amendment as allowing abortion when a woman's life was threatened by the pregnancy, including by threat of suicide. The judgement came after Ms. X, a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped, sought permission to travel abroad for an abortion. She was initially sequestered by the state before the judgement came down. Ms. X later miscarried. 

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