Thursday, May 10, 2007

Main Parties Unwilling To Grab Nettle Of Abortion

Stephen Collins The Irish Times Thursday May 10th.

After referendums and rulings, there is still no legislation, writes Stephen Collins , Political Editor
The High Court decision to allow Miss D to travel abroad for an abortion has brought the thorny issue back to the centre of public debate. There have been five abortion-related referendums since 1983 and the issue still divides the politicians as well as the voters.

The anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution in 1983 created such bitter divisions that politicians were reluctant to revisit the issue and they never put a legislative framework in place to deal with that constitutional change.

The issue came back to haunt them in 1992 when the Supreme Court decided to allow Miss X, a minor, to travel to Britain for an abortion on the basis that there was a real threat to her life as she was suicidal.

The then taoiseach Albert Reynolds then introduced three referendum proposals, one dealing with the right to travel, another covering the right to information about abortion and the third or so-called substantive amendment dealing with the circumstance in which the threat to a mother's health could be grounds for abortion.

Two of the proposals, the right to travel and information, were passed. However, the third was defeated by a combination of conservatives who believed that the measure was too liberal and liberals who believed that it was too conservative.

The referendums were held on the same day as the general election of 1992 which led to the formation of the first and only Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition. Labour insisted that the programme for government included a commitment to legislate for abortion in the light of the X case as well as legislating for travel and information.

In the event none of this legislation emerged. When the Reynolds government fell in 1994, it was replaced by the rainbow government led by John Bruton, which also included Labour and a commitment to legislate.

Legislation to deal with travel and information was introduced by the rainbow coalition and passed through the Dáil in the face of opposition from Fianna Fáil but legislation to cover the X case did not emerge.

When Bertie Ahern led Fianna Fáil back into government with the PDs in 1997, he pledged to deal with the issue. He did so by proposing a constitutional amendment quite similar to the "substantive" measure proposed by Reynolds in 1992 which dealt with the threat to the health and life of the mother but removed the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion.

This time the Catholic Church supported the amendment but again it was defeated by a combination of liberals and conservatives. Most of the leaders of the original anti-abortion campaign of 1983 supported the measure but more radical conservatives campaigned against it.
The response of the political parties to the matter varied and there are divisions within almost all the parties on the issue.

The formal position of the parties is as follows:

Fianna Fáil: The party is opposed to legislation allowing for the introduction of abortion in Ireland and wishes to leave the status quo untouched.

Fine Gael: The party's position is almost identical. Enda Kenny expressed his sympathy for the tragic circumstances facing the young woman involved in the Miss D case but made it clear that he did not favour legislating for abortion.

The Progressive Democrats: A party spokeswoman said yesterday that it had never developed a single collective position on abortion. The PD constitution provides for the right of individual elected members to have their own separate views on matters of conscience and morality.

Labour: Following confusion over a motion passed at its annual conference of 2001, the party established a committee to examine the position. It reported back in 2003 and its recommendations were accepted by the party.

They were that the party commit itself to bringing forward legislation, under the current constitutional position, to provide for the availability of a termination of pregnancy in the cases of:

A risk to the life of the woman, including the risk of suicide;
Foetal abnormality which is such that the foetus will never be born alive;
A risk of significant injury to the physical health of the mother.

In the event of a constitutional challenge to any of this legislation being upheld, the Labour would then consider such constitutional options as would then arise in the light of any judgment.

The Greens: The party does not have a position on the issue. A spokesman said yesterday that there was no appetite in the party for a decision on the issue one way or another as there were divided views on the matter. He added that it was a matter of personal conscience.

Sinn Féin: The party ardfheis last year voted in favour of legislation to provide for abortion in the Republic. However, a statement on its position yesterday said Sinn Féin was not in favour of abortion nor did it believe that the 1967 British Abortion Act should be extended to the North.
"Where a woman's life and health is at risk or in grave danger or in cases of rape, incest or sexual abuse, we urge compassion and accept that the final decision should rest with the woman," said the party in the statement.

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