The advice from Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar comes as a debate is expected today at cabinet ahead of a Dáil vote later this week on liberalising abortion laws.
Fine Gael ministers maintain Independent TD Mick Wallace’s bill to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities is unconstitutional, as advised by Attorney General Maire Whelan. But Independent Alliance ministers say they intend to support the bill.
In a surprise claim on RTE’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Transport Minister Shane Ross said the advice from Ms Whelan was “simply an opinion”.
“It is our intention to vote for the bill because we believe it is one of the cardinal views of the Independent Alliance that on issues of conscience and issues of this sort there should be a free vote,” he said.
His fellow alliance members, Disability Minister Finian McGrath and junior jobs minister John Halligan, will also support the bill, said Mr Ross. However, alliance members TD Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran and OPW minister Seán Canney will oppose it.
While noting the advice from Ms Whelan was very serious, Mr Ross added: “It’s not going to force us to vote against our consciences. I think the attorney general’s advice is simply an opinion.”
Alliance ministers as well as Mr Wallace want the bill tested in the Supreme Court and say the Cabinet should not be dictated by any advice. “We’re saying we believe we don’t leave our consciences at the door of the Cabinet, we believe we should vote according to our consciences and have a free vote. Others will take the advice of the attorney general and that’s absolutely fair,” added Mr Ross.
But Mr Varadkar, who previously has said Ireland’s abortion laws are far too restrictive,
said allowing a free vote on a bill legislating for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities could set a “difficult precedent” for the Government.
“There are times when as a minister you can’t do things because they are against legal advice and are unconstitutional,” he said. “If you are willing to disregard or go against the advice of the Attorney General on one thing inevitably you will come under pressure on other things to do the same.”
He also said it was always right to be “compassionate” but never “right to be false”.
The Cabinet has not agreed a position on the bill after adjourning discussion on it last week. The legislation is due to be voted on by TDs on Thursday. However, the indications are that the bill, even if supported by Independent TDs and ministers, is likely to be defeated if most Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil TDs oppose it.
Obstetrician Sam Coulter-Smith said there were questions about medical wordings in the bill that raised doubts.
“The terminology is difficult,” he told RTÉ.
Pro Life campaigner Cora Sherlock also warned against the bill passing. “It’s important to remember that doctors have no way of knowing how long these babies will live for. Why introduce a law that will write off these babies instead of giving them a chance of life?”