By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A three-step Irish government plan to tighten the law on abortion with a combination of a constitutional amendment copper-fastening new legislation is shaping up to be a rerun of the contentious and divisive debate that has dogged the issue for over two decades.
There have already been four constitutional votes related to abortion, two of them dealing directly with the main issue and the others permitting freedom to travel to Britain and freedom to get information on services available abroad.
A record 6,500 women with Irish addresses traveled to Britain last year to have pregnancies terminated.
The real figure is thought to be higher, with many giving false names and addresses. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said it meant an average of 18 Irish women had an abortion every day in Britain.
Announcing his long-promised proposals, Ahern hoped they would command general support as a “prudent, workable, sensible, caring and compassionate approach.”
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Within hours, it was obvious that that there was no chance of consensus, with most of the interest groups taking up predictable positions.
The Progressive Democrats, who had been opposed to another referendum, are now backing what Minister Liz O’Donnell said many would see as a “relatively conservative proposal.”
Labor is firmly against the proposals and are trying to grapple with internal differences following the passing of a “women’s right to choose” motion at its Cork annual conference last month.
Fine Gael, which also has internal differences, is mulling on its position pending legal advice and the answers to 34 questions to the government seeking “urgent clarification.”
For Ahern and Fianna Fail it is a gamble with a general election due before next summer.
The plan involves legislation going through the Oireachtas to allow a referendum before Christmas. Then the referendum vote will take place, probably in the spring, to state that a proposed Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act 2002 shall by the law on abortion.
Finally, if the amendment is accepted, the Act will have to be passed by the Oireachtas within 180 days, or the constitutional amendment will lapse.
The main change as a result of the elaborate plan is to roll back on the landmark 1992 decision of the Supreme Court. It extended permission for abortion if there is a “real and substantial risk to the life of the mother” to include the threat of suicide.
The ruling arose out of the so-called “X case” involving a raped 14-year-old who became pregnant. The government had attempted to stop her from traveling to Britain for an abortion.
A subsequent 1992 referendum that attempted to roll back the Supreme Court decision was defeated by a two-to-one vote.
Ahern said an all-party committee that studied the issue had not supported suicide of the pregnant woman as a ground for abortion.
A referendum alone was not a solution because abortion was too complex a matter to be dealt with by a “simple sentence or paragraph” in the constitution, Ahern said.
Legislating for the suicide option would involve complex legal provisions that would “commence an inevitable slide to freely available ‘social abortion’ in Ireland.”
The backing of the new law by the constitution would fire-proof it from legal challenge, and mean any future change would have to be approved by referendum too.
Ahern said the new proposed law would protect both women and the unborn in pregnancy and “will accommodate existing medical practice which safeguards the life of the women from exposure to real and substantial risk.
“The new law will give complete protection to medical procedures necessary to avoid those risks,” he said.
“In a small number if cases, of strict and undeniable medical necessity, those procedures can entail or result in ending the life of the unborn.”
It would not restrict the right of women to travel to Britain. Use of the morning-after pill and the IUD will be lawful under the proposals.
The Pro-Life campaign welcomed the plan as a “consensus” that would appeal to the middle ground. The Catholic Bishops have yet to give their verdict.
The Irish Family Planning Association urged a “No” vote, describing it as a backward step, fundamentally flawed, retrograde and hypocritical as it simply pointed the way to Britain.
Abortion Reform, which favors a woman’s right to choose, described it as an “export charter” for women. It says it could lead to a rerun of something similar to the 1997 “C case,” when a 13-year-old became pregnant after being raped. She was in the care of the state-funded health board and there were legal challenges to stop it from taking her to Britain.
It questioned whether, if such a case arose again and the teenager concerned was suicidal, the health board be permitted to pay for her to go to Britain as she would not be allowed have a lawful abortion in Ireland.
The government also said it would establish a new agency to address crisis pregnancies, promote other options to a termination and provide post-abortion services.
“By putting these measures in place we hope to ensure the numbers of Irish women seeking abortion abroad are kept to a minimum,” Health Minister Micheal Martin said.
The a variation of the legal device of tying changes in the law in with a constitutional referendum amendment was previously used for the Good Friday peace agreement.
The dropping of the constitutional claim to the North was contingent on the peace deal becoming legally binding.