By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The run-up to the March 6 abortion referendum is developing into a re-run of previous campaigns, with deep divisions, contradictory claims, swapped insults and an adjournment of the Dail in uproar.
Ireland’s 2.87 million voters will decide whether to amend the 1937 constitution to further restrict a woman’s access to abortion. The proposal would, in effect, roll back a 1992 Supreme Court ruling in which the threat of suicide by a pregnant woman was deemed legitimate grounds to permit abortion. The so-called “X Case” centered on a 14-year-old girl who was raped, became pregnant as a result, and was deemed suicidal because of her pregnancy.
On the day the main campaign manifestoes were launched by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael last week, insults were hurled across the floor of the Dail.
The row centered on remarks on a local radio station by Marine Minister Frank Fahey when he said there had been “several attempts” in the last year to seek an abortion on the basis that the pregnant mothers involved were suicidal.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dail he wanted a “calm and cool” debate and said he was not aware of anyone seeking abortion under the suicide ruling.
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“I don’t think anyone would be aware of such a case,” he said, pointing out that under the code of practice of Irish doctors it would not be permitted or made public.
Ahern clashed with the Labor Party TDs, claiming they were pro-abortion.
“You’re not a pro-life party, you’re a pro-abortion party and pro-choice party,” he charged.
TDs swapped insults — thug, gurrier and slithering political lizard — before Fine Gael’s deputy leader, Nora Owen, who is heading the party campaign for a “No” vote, was suspended. Finally the Dail was adjourned for 15 minutes to allow tempers to cool.
The Fine Gael leader, Michael Noonan, accused Ahern of “scare-mongering” and claimed the government was attempting to inject “misinformation and hysteria” into the debate.
On Monday, Dana, aka Rosemary Scallon, now a Euro-MP, who has campaigned strongly for another referendum to copperfasten a constitutional ban on abortion, joined the “No” campaign. Her stance reveals the unlikely coalition arrayed against the proposal: staunch anti-abortionists, who don’t believe that the measure is strong enough, and those who might be described as pro-choice (though rarely in the sense of abortion on demand), who believe it goes too far.
Dana, the 1970 Eurovision song contest winner, said the proposal does not protect the unborn from the moment of fertilization.
The proposal involves a maximum 12-year sentence for an illegal abortion, which is defined as destruction of unborn human life “after implantation in the womb.”
Scallon welcomed the removal of the suicide justification but said she could not in conscience vote in favor of the measure as it does not “vindicate the value of life from conception.”
“The referendum will leave the pre-implanted embryo without statutory protection,” she said.
She is also seeking reassurances about the implications for embryo research.
On the instructions of the taoiseach, about 50,000 Fianna Fail activists synchronized cumann meetings around the country on Monday.
Party secretary Martin Mackin said there were about 3,000 local branch meetings.
“It is part of the pre-election roll-up of activity for the party,” he said. “It is in order to prepare ourselves for the election that is not too far ahead and also prepare ourselves for the referendum campaign.”
If passed on March 6, the amendment will give constitutional backing to abortion laws that will have to be enacted by the Oireachtas within 180 days. It is designed to “fire-proof” the abortion law against any future political change unless another referendum is held.