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Cabinet bid to break abortion stand-off over Reilly

A group of ministers from both Government parties -- including Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore -- was locked in talks to break the abortion impasse last night.

The talks came after gaffe-prone Health Minister James Reilly's botched handling of the abortion legislation deepened divisions between Fine Gael and Labour.

The coalition partners remain locked in a stalemate over Dr Reilly's proposal to have six consultants involved in approving an abortion where there is a threat of suicide.

Despite Dr Reilly's apparent denial, the Irish Independent has learned that the draft outline of the abortion legislation specifically involves six consultants.

A two-phase assessment would be made of a pregnant woman threatening suicide.

The first phase would involve one obstetrician and two psychiatrists -- one of whom would have to be a perinatal psychiatrist -- who would have to "jointly certify in their reasonable opinion there is a real and substantial risk" to the life of the mother.

In the second phase, another obstetrician and two more psychiatrists would "review the opinion and certify they are of the same opinion".

The text is contained in a draft outline of the Protection of Maternal Life Bill, currently being worked on in the Department of Health.

"That's what is on the table. This is the significant sticking point. This hasn't moved an inch.

"There has been no progress," a coalition source said.

The draft has not been circulated to members of the Government, but Labour ministers were briefed on its contents yesterday before the cabinet meeting.

The report of the Expert Group on abortion recommends three consultants and Labour are saying it is hard to get away from this finding.

However, the junior coalition party is not pinning itself down to a figure on the number of consultants, instead looking for a solution that is workable.

Dr Reilly's update to the Cabinet was described by colleagues as showing a "lack of preparation", which didn't allow for detailed discussion among ministers.

Hardline

Despite the Health Minister's apparent denial, the Irish Independent understands there was a proposal to have six consultants

Ministers were frustrated by Dr Reilly's lacklustre performance, which some regarded as "not surprising", given his reputation for poor management of sensitive issues.

Putting Fine Gael under greater pressure on the issue, Fianna Fail is poised to adopt a more hardline stance on abortion legislation.

The publication of the first draft of the bill is now being put back to next week with further negotiations expected between the parties as the week goes on.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny had said the heads of the bill, or rough outline, was to be presented yesterday.

But no papers were distributed at the cabinet meeting and there was "very little discussion", prompting ministers to describe it as a "non-event".

Dr Reilly was described as ill-prepared for yesterday's well-flagged and keenly anticipated Cabinet discussion on abortion.

However, a Government spokesman said ministers had made progress on the development of legislation.

He said the heads of the bill were not brought to Cabinet because they were not ready, but the intention was to bring them to Government next week.

He would not comment on whether differences between Labour and Fine Gael had caused the delay.

Mr Kenny said he still wanted to see the legislation passed by the summer.

"It is an issue where there are two lives here – the life of the mother and the life of the unborn," he said.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn admitted there were differences of opinion between the parties. But, even aside from the Coalition dispute, Dr Reilly left his colleagues underwhelmed.

Government sources said they were "disappointed" but not surprised at Dr Reilly's presentation, which one described as "par for the course" with the Health Minister.

"There was an impression given of a lack of preparation," a coalition source said. "There was no detailed discussion."

Asked if the lack of detail was a surprise, the source said the issue had been included on the cabinet agenda and would be expected to have been dealt with in more detail.

"It was more of a case of people making comments to him than him fielding questions. There was no memo or official paper on the issue."

Fianna Fail's Ard Fheis will debate a series of pro-life motions this weekend, calling for the party to oppose legislation and for another referendum.

Divisions

Fianna Fail's Dara Calleary says there are "divisions" in the party on abortion policy, but it remains "very pro-life".

The party is refusing to say where it stands on legislation to provide for abortion on the grounds of suicide until the Government publishes its legislation.

"The party is very pro-life. We have made no bones about that throughout the debate," he said.

Online Editors