Thousands of pro-life campaigners protested outside the Dáil last night as the debate on abortion began.
The campaigners held a candle-lit vigil calling on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to fulfil pre-election pledges not to legislate for abortion.
On the eve of budget day, they held banners aloft bearing the message: “Enda, keep your pro-life promise.”
Prior to last year’s election, Fine Gael campaign director Phil Hogan issued a letter stating: “Fine Gael is opposed to the legalisation of abortion.” Ahead of the 2007 election, Mr Kenny said he would not legislate for abortion.
However, a European Court of Human Rights judgment on the issue, combined with the death of Savita Halappanavar at the end of October, has forced the Government to act.
Under the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in the X case, abortion is permissible in Ireland in cases where a mother’s life is at risk, including from suicide.
However, no government has ever legislated to bring clarity to this judgment.
As a result, the ECHR found Ireland had no clear procedure by which a woman could determine if she qualified for a lawful abortion. An expert group report, published last month, outlined four ways in which Government could introduce such a procedure.
Although it did not make recommendations, the report indicated that a combination of legislation plus regulations would be the soundest way forward.
The Government has pledged to reach a decision on which option to pursue before Christmas.
The debate on the report commenced last night, and saw Health Minister James Reilly reiterate his pledge that the Government would “bring the required legal clarity to the issue of legal abortion in Ireland”.
However, he stressed: “This does not mean abortion on demand.
“We must protect the life of the pregnant mother and yet vindicate the right of the unborn child. We have to clarify what is available by way of treatment to the women of Ireland, and clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care.”
Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin said he did not believe “in the provision of general access to abortion in the way that it is available in many other countries”.
He said there was a growing respect for life across the world which was “perhaps the greatest achievement of the modern age”.
This “should extend to the unborn” and “when women are pregnant, they should have no less protection for their lives”.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said that while his party does not favour abortion, it “supports the introduction of legislation in line with the X case and also in circumstances of rape and incest”.
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