Kenny will not bend to Left on abortion
The political class has been left dragging its heels behind the mood of country on the thorny issue of abortion
Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30
With last weekend's stunning victory for Ireland's liberal agenda in the passage of the same-sex marriage referendum, attention immediately turned to the thorny issue of abortion.
The sun had not yet set on Dublin Castle and the official result in the referendum hadn't yet been announced, but those on the Left, including several senior Labour ministers, were talking about repealing the controversial 1983 Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, which gives equal rights to the mother and the unborn, is detested by liberals and cherished by conservatives. It is the next battle in Ireland's social agenda.
Liberals argue, with some legitimacy, that the status quo on abortion is deeply restrictive and has the effect of forcing women, largely vulnerable women, to suffer unimaginable trauma by not permitting an abortion in extreme situations of distress.
Cases of rape, incest and cases where a baby is deemed to have no chance of a viable existence outside of the womb, are the most obvious examples that come up.
Leading liberal voices like Clare Daly TD argue that the Eighth Amendment is an outdated albatross hanging around the neck of Irish society.
"It's an issue which affected 10 women today, 10 women yesterday, and 10 women tomorrow, who are forced to take journey out of these shores for a routine medical treatment in other countries," she told the Dail when she tried to introduce legislation to repeal the amendment last December.
Many in Labour share her view and Labour TD Anne Ferris voted in support of the bill against the Government's wishes, and as a result, lost her party's whip. Even some in Fine Gael expressed support for scrapping the provision.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar said the constitutional restrictions on abortion are too "restrictive" and have a "chilling effect" on doctors.
Varadkar, while in favour of change, said the current Government has no mandate to change the current law, which would have to be done by referendum, and said he has no right to impose his own views. "Speaking as Minister for Health, and also as a medical doctor, and knowing now all that I do now, it is my considered view that the Eighth Amendment is too restrictive," he said.
Minister for Children James Reilly has said the constitutional amendment banning abortion should be repealed to allow for terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Conservatives, many of whom are driven by faith and fears that any move on abortion would open the doors to abortion on demand over time, argue with passion that the Eighth Amendment gives a constitutional voice and protection to the unborn.
Cora Sherlock, of the Pro Life Campaign, rejected recent calls for repealing the Eighth Amendment. She said: "It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of people are alive in Ireland today thanks to the Eighth Amendment. We know of many mothers who are grateful for the amendment, because without it, their children may never have been born."
"This law is unjust and must be repealed, but at least while the Eighth Amendment is still in place, the right to life of the unborn child must still be considered by doctors in Ireland," she added.
But whatever about the rights and wrongs of the argument, the matter is once again on the political agenda.
Speaking last weekend, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin gave voice to the desire that exists within the junior coalition party to see more liberal abortion laws introduced here. He said: "We have committed to include the repealing of the Eighth Amendment in our manifesto and we hope the people will re-elect us to deliver on that."
Then, on Monday, Labour's Junior Health Minister Kathleen Lynch went further, saying repealing the Eighth Amendment is very "do-able".
Ms Lynch said: "First and foremost, we have to repeal that amendment to the Constitution and then sit down and legislate in a practical and reasonable fashion that will allow the people that treat women, when they find themselves in particular circumstances, to make decisions without that chilling effect hanging over them.
"I believe that if you're forceful enough in your conviction, and I think we are, that repeal of the Eighth Amendment is very do-able."
Despite the calls from his coalition partners, showing no desire to bend any further to the liberal willow, Taoiseach Enda Kenny shut down any suggestion of a move on the Eighth Amendment this side of an election. Mr Kenny responded in the Dail by saying the issue should not be "rushed" as it requires "careful consideration".
"I do not believe that this house should be rushed into making a decision… This requires the most careful consideration by whoever is elected… There won't be a referendum on this in the lifetime of this Government," he said.
Mr Kenny said he doesn't "believe in abortion on demand" but noted there are some "issues of great sensitivity", such as fatal foetal abnormalities, that need to be carefully considered. His caution is reflective of a deep conservatism within Fine Gael but appears to be out of step with a majority of people in Irish society, who have in a series of opinion polls supported the introduction of a more liberal abortion regime.
The most recent Millward Brown opinion poll for this newspaper, conducted in April, showed 63pc of those polled supported the right to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. The poll also found that 60pc say abortion should be allowed in the case where the mother is suicidal.
Whatever the public mood, the 'realpolitik' of the matter is that Fine Gael paid a heavy price by way of seven parliamentarians, including then junior minister Lucinda Creighton, to pass the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013. There is no appetite to risk any repeat of that.
Privately, Labour recognise that there will be no move on the amendment this side of an election and they appear to be ok with that. Reports to the contrary in the media last week left many within Labour puzzled to say the least.
Ultimately, those seeking swift action on this deeply divisive issue, which has led to some of the most vulgar and poisonous public debate in recent times, are to be disappointed. The dragging of heels by the political class against the wishes of the majority of its people will continue.