FG too divided on abortion issue to risk free vote

After more than two decades of dither and delay the Cabinet that finally decided to legislate for the X case ruling was still too timid to even mention what has become the key area for contention on the issue — suicide.

Sensitivity within Fine Gael is so intense on the subject that a brief statement from the Government signalling it would go down the dual route of legislation and regulation was careful to avoid any direct reference to suicide risk in a woman seeking a termination.

The expert group that provided the Government with four options on how to proceed on the X case ruling last month was itself a Coalition creation intended to give Fine Gael political cover to move on an issue which makes the party deeply uncomfortable.

The strong anti-abortion rights element within Fine Gael will now attempt to regroup around the emotive issue of what constitutes suicide risk in the eventual legislation.

To this end, ministers are again attempting to provide maximum room for manoeuvre by keeping things as vague as possible.

A large swathe of Fine Gael TDs in particular have expressed concerns that how the suicide element is handled could result in the legislation being more liberal than the X case judgment allowed for.

Pro-choice groups have countered that the X case ruling on suicide risk is quite clear and has to be addressed in an unequivocal way in the proposed new laws, and that insinuating that women in crisis pregnancies will habitually lie about their state of mind is insulting.

In order to provide space, the Cabinet’s statement stressed the consultative nature of the process with the matter going before the Oireachtas health committee in January and then the heads of the bill and the regulations such law will underpin will emerge.

With anti-abortion groups promising an aggressive and highly personalised campaign of opposition directed at TDs and senators, the Coalition is keen to move as fast as possible with the legislation and would not want it to rumble on into the summer.

Despite the Cabinet move being of such historic proportions, Health Minister James Reilly did not make himself available to explain what would happen next.

But a carefully worded statement made intent clear: “The Government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened.

“We must fulfil our duty of care towards them. For that purpose, we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman’s life.

“We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny again insisted there would be no free vote on the issue as happens at Westminster when the subject is debated. He knows that even in a post-Savita Halappanavar atmosphere, his party is still too divided to risk such a move.

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