An anti-abortion protestor prays outside the Dail tonight as the amendments to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill are debated. Photograph: Dave Meehan/Irish Times

The Irish Government won the final Dáil (lower house) vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 by 127 votes to 31 today – a more than 80% majority despite vociferous opposition from the Catholic Bishops and pro-life groups such as the allegedly US right wing funded Youth Defence. This parliamentary vote accurately reflects the state of public opinion on the issue in Ireland at the moment. The Bill regulates the provision of an abortion where the life of the mother is substantially at risk, and includes the threat of suicide in the definition of what might constitute a substantial risk to the life of the mother in line with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the “Right to Life” clause of the Irish Constitution in the X case (1992).

It should be noted that 6 of the 31 Deputies who voted against the Bill did so because they believed it did not go far enough – making no provision for abortion in the case of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities (where a foetus has no chance of remaining viable later in pregnancy or after birth). Some were also concerned that the Bill’s provision for a jail sentence of up to 14 years for procuring an abortion outside the terms of the Bill was unduly harsh and would have the effect of driving most women seeking an abortion to continue to travel to Britain.

An estimated 4,000 did so in 2012 and few people see this bill as having a major impact on that statistic in the future -despite claims by the pro-life movement that it will “open the floodgates” to abortion on demand in Ireland. Why would a women or her doctors risk criminal sanctions when an abortion can be legally procured in the UK without the onerous provisions of the Bill having to be complied with? In practice, only women in state care or who are too poor or to ill to travel are likely to apply for an abortion in Ireland under this Bill’s provisions.

At least, however, the Bill will ensure there is some additional clarity as to when an abortion can be legally performed in Ireland and reduce the hypocrisy of Irish women having to travel abroad to procure an abortion in virtually all circumstances. Ironically, the Bill might not have saved Savita Halappanavar’s life, as her life was not deemed to be substantially at risk when she made her request for an abortion. Doctor’s will still struggle to determine (and perhaps differ) as to when a substantial threat to the life of the mother is posed by a continuation of the pregnancy. An increased risk of sepsis is unlikely to be regarded as substantial enough, under the terms of the bill, but once sepsis sets in, it may well be too late to save the mother, as happened with Savita Halappanavar.

So the practical impact of the Bill in medical terms may well be very slight: More important by far is the political message it conveys about the evolution in politics in Ireland. No longer do the Catholic Bishops have a veto on all social legislation in Ireland. They chose to make this their signature issue, and they failed to influence the outcome. Only one junior Government Minister, Lucinda Creighton, voted against the measure, and lost her Ministerial job and membership of the Fine Gael Parliamentary party as a result, as did four Fine Gael back-benchers. Given that Fine Gael is probably the most socially conservative party in Ireland and aligned with the Christian Democrats in Europe, this gives some indication of the cultural shift that has taken place in Ireland in recent years.

The argument for the defeated amendment to include the legalisation of abortion in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality is eloquently put in this piece. It was not included in the current legislation because the Government wanted to retain the argument that it was merely codifying the current legal position following the Supreme Court ruling in the X case (20 years ago) and a fatal foetal abnormality was not at issue in that case.

The best that can be said for the legislation is that the Government has finally acted, after 20 years of inaction by successive Governments, to provide some clarity and legislative effect to the X case ruling and complied with the December 2011 unanimous ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ABC v Ireland) that Ireland’s failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland when a woman’s life is at risk violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In doing so, the Government has also set a precedent for legislation of this kind, and the door is now ajar for legislation providing for additional limited circumstances where an abortion will be lawful in the future. That is why this legislation was so vociferously opposed by the Catholic Church.

I do not expect, however, that this government will want to revisit this issue within the lifetime of this Dail. That is because most people will vote on economic issues and judge it on it’s economic performance. Fine Gael can ill afford to lose part of its socially conservative base which would normally be part of it’s core vote, and so will want to put this issue to bed and out of the limelight as quickly as possible. At present the pro-life moment has nowhere else to go politically, as even Fianna Fail, the other conservative political party, has been reluctant to fully embrace their cause.

The pro-life movement could form its own Catholic heartland conservative party, however, and win seats in marginal rural constituencies even with less than 15% of the vote, thanks to Ireland’s multi-seat proportional representation system. There are already a large number of (mostly left leaning) independents in the Dail, and collectively they have about 20% support nationally, such is the national disillusionment with the current party political system generally. The five expelled Fine Gael deputies – led by the able and telegenic Lucinda Creighton – could form the nucleus of such a new political party, siphoning off conservative support from Fine Gael, independents, and even some Fianna Fail supporters.

Fortunately Lucinda Creighton is ambitious enough to aspire to the leadership of Fine Gael itself, and so may not wish to alienate herself from the party further by forming a splinter group. Nevertheless Fine Gael will want to shut off any political momentum the five expelled TD’s might gain in the media and elsewhere as quickly as possible, and so I don’t expect the issue of abortion to be revisited again by the current Government despite the opinion poll showing that 83% of the population support abortion in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Ireland may be moving on from craw-thumping adherence to Catholic Church doctrines, but 15% of the older, wealthier, better organised and more politically active elements of the population can still hold the political system to ransom when they put their collective minds to it. The fact that the otherwise very conservative Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, held firm in the face of their wrath is to his enduring political credit despite the very limited nature of the legislation now passed in the lower house. It would have inconceivable just a few years ago – prior to the child abuse scandals – for an Irish Government to have acted in this way.

It may not have been coincidental that the long redacted Chapter 20 of the Murphy report was finally published yesterday. It criticised three successive Archbishops of Dublin in the most trenchant of terms for their longstanding policy of protecting serially offending paedophile priests which resulted in many more children being abused. The Catholic Church, too, will want to put this chapter behind them as quickly as possible, but the chutzpah with which they have sought to portray themselves as the representatives and defenders of unborn children in this whole debate has been utterly remarkable.

For this otherwise very unpopular Government it will now be back to business as usual, which is still about imposing austerity economics on an already deflating economy egged on by what passes for an economic think tank in Ireland. If only the Government could show similar resolve in addressing our economic problems. Having forced it’s Fine Gael partner in Government to go to the wire on the abortion issue, the Labour Party will have very little leverage to force a change of policy on economic issues. Such are the realities of power as a junior party in a coalition government.

See also:

Catholic Bishops fighting losing battle in Ireland Mon Jun 17th, 2013
Abortion in Ireland Wed Dec 19th, 2012
Would an abortion have saved Savita Halappanavar? Tue Nov 20th, 2012
What right to life? Thu Nov 15th, 2012

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