Friday 31 October 2014

Battle is won but the war over abortion will continue to rage

Published 14/06/2013 | 17:00

THE controversy over the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill is all over bar the shouting – although there'll be a fair bit of that in the coming weeks.

The publication of the bill brought sighs of relief from coalition figures in the corridors of Leinster House yesterday.

It has been a bruising process that caused serious tensions. Not least, in Fine Gael.

Its TDs will be pleased at the opinion poll showing majority support for legislating for the X Case. They can argue their government has finally dealt with the issue after 21 years of obfuscation.

But, inevitably, Fine Gael will lose some members of its parliamentary party – perhaps as many as five – when the bill comes before the Oireachtas.

And the tensions, which have impacted on friendships within the party, will linger on for some time.

Few of its TDs are in any doubt that, in legislating for the X Case, they have alienated a minority of their supporters.

Given how seats can be decided by a handful of votes come general election time, that's no small consideration.

Overall though, the Government has handled a hugely sensitive and tricky issue as well as possible.

It may have been coincidence that the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill and the HSE's clinical review report into the death of Savita Halappanavar were published on the same day. But it seems somehow apposite.

Once the story broke about Savita's tragic death, it was inevitable that the Government would have to finally tackle the grey area surrounding abortion law that has existed since the Supreme Court's ruling on the X Case.

Voters wouldn't have accepted further prevarication. Enda Kenny understood this reality straight away. Despite the pressure, and his own pro-life views, he resolved to legislate for the X Case and face down dissent from inside (and outside) his party.

By being so firm, Kenny has limited the political fallout in a way that, for example, Albert Reynolds's government didn't do at the time of the X Case in 1992.

It may even be shown he did more than that. His comments this week that he was "a Taoiseach who happened to be a Catholic", rather than "a Catholic Taoiseach", sent out a powerful message.

It would have resonated with most voters – even many practising Catholics – and did no harm to inter-party relations in government.

You could almost hear the purring of Labour TDs in the Dail when he spoke.

But while Kenny has made a virtue out of necessity, he will be anxious not to revisit the abortion issue during his tenure as Taoiseach.

By legislating for 'X', his government has probably got itself some breathing space. However, if the past 30 years has taught us anything, it's a matter of 'when', not 'if' abortion will be back on the political agenda.

The question of permitting abortions in cases where the foetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb could be the next issue.

Yesterday's opinion poll showed 83pc support for terminations in such circumstances. But such a change would require a constitutional referendum.

There is no appetite in Cabinet – whatever about the Labour backbenches – for this.

That opinion poll provided further evidence that opinions have shifted considerably since the 1983 abortion referendum.

Back then, the vast majority of the country could have been categorised as firmly 'pro-life'.

Now the situation is a lot more complex. We now have a minority of people with strong pro-life views; a (growing) pro-choice minority, and then the biggest cohort, somewhere in the middle with views that vary according to the circumstances.

According to yesterday's poll, a large majority of voters back wider access to abortion in cases such as rape and abuse. Three-quarters also said they favoured abortions in cases where a woman's health was at risk.

Of course, views expressed in an opinion poll are not the same as votes cast after the white heat of a referendum campaign. But it's undeniable that attitudes are changing.

And that means another referendum – our sixth since 1983 – is inevitable at some point. It may not happen on Enda Kenny's watch, but it will on some future Taoiseach's. Abortion as a political issue is not going to go away.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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