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Despite fiery all-night debate, Ireland’s abortion bill inches toward law

Passage of the bill, which would legalize abortion in Ireland for the first time, looks all but assured.

Despite two nights of sturm und drang in the Irish parliament – including an all-night debate last night – it is all but guaranteed that Ireland will soon permit abortion in limited circumstances.

Fittingly for one of the hottest days of the year so far, Ireland’s parliament today debated what may be the hottest issue in the county’s political history since independence. As temperatures reached 80 degrees during the day, the heat went on into the night – in parliament at least – as lawmakers debated the long-awaited Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

The bill includes provisions for abortion if a woman’s life is threatened by pregnancy, including by suicide, if a panel of psychiatrists judges the threat to be real. It also prescribes a jail term of 14 years for anyone procuring or performing an abortion obtained under false claims. 

Some 100 of 166 amendments were discussed last night, with 66 more being discussed tonight – parliament will adjourn by midnight tonight regardless of whether a vote is called – and a final vote due before Saturday, depending on how much progress is made.

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But despite the intense debate – not only over the bill, but also over the government’s decision to delay voting first until 2 this morning, then 5 a.m., and then until tomorrow – passage appears a formality at this point.

Ireland’s second-highest judicial authority, the High Court, Thursday refused to grant an injunction stopping the bill’s passage. And the remaining amendments are largely last-ditch attempts to block the bill, which has overwhelming support.

So far, every amendment to have been voted on has been rejected by more than 100 of the 166 parliamentarians, with the remainder likely to meet a similar fate.

Deep divisions

But the battlefield is strewn with casualties: Irish politics is now in disarray as intra-party divisions have opened across the board. 

Five government lawmakers are set to defy the party whip demanding unanimous support for the bill, and in the process lose their membership in the governing Fine Gael parliamentary group. One, Lucinda Creighton, a junior minister, tonight lost her ministry as a result of voting against the government on an amendment.

Two Fine Gael members who had been expected to defy orders in the end voted with the government. One, Michelle Mulherin, made a pointed speech in parliament, saying: “I am now faced with either supporting the Bill or being booted out of the party, my party. And I am not going to allow myself to be booted out so I’m supporting this legislation.”

The junior government coalition partner, Labour, is unanimously in favor of the change in law, save for one member who accidentally voted against the party whip on an amendment last night amid chaotic scenes.

Among opposition parties there is division. Socialist republican party Sinn Féin supports the bill, albeit with one member defecting. Former government party, centrist Fianna Fáil is divided on the issue, and will not not impose a party whip. 

Ireland’s far-left lawmakers, who uniformly support women’s right to choose, have joined with anti-abortionists in rejecting the bill, doing so on the basis that it doesn’t go far enough. Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins described the bill as a “betrayal of women.”

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Tragic history

Tensions have been inflamed by the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital in October 2012 after a miscarriage. She had requested an abortion, but was refused. An inquest found she died of septic shock.

Mr. Higgins’s former Socialist colleague and now-independent Clare Daly, a leading abortion-rights campaigner who has submitted two private members’ bills on abortion to parliament, says the bill makes abortions more difficult to obtain, not less.

“In the absence of a referendum to repeal article 40.3.3 of the Constitution – for which we call – we were willing to support legislation in line with the X Case Ruling of 1992. This bill however, will put more obstacles in the way of access to lifesaving abortions than are required by the constitution,” she said.

Article 40.3.3 of Ireland’s Constitution, also known as the eighth amendment, is a rule recognizing: “the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. It was introduced in 1983 after a bitter referendum campaign, with anti-abortion campaigners supporting and pro-choice campaigners against.

The 1992 X Case ruling interpreted the amendment as allowing abortion when a woman’s life was threatened by the pregnancy, including by threat of suicide. The judgment came after Ms. X, a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped, sought permission to travel abroad for an abortion. She was initially sequestered by the state before the judgment came down. Ms. X later miscarried.