Taoiseach Enda Kenny has attempted to quell fallout over contentious changes to abortion rules by claiming that law on the procedure is not being changed.
Amid concerns that reforms on the issue of a suicidal pregnant woman will spark backbench resignations, Mr Kenny said the new legislation is designed to bring clarity and legal certainty to both women and doctors.
The proposals, if enacted, will legislate for the 1992 X case judgment from the Supreme Court which found abortion is legal if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide.
The case was taken by a 14-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and was refused permission to travel for an abortion.
As well as that judgment, the loosening of rules is intended to meet requirements from a European court decision that found a woman in remission from cancer should not have been forced to travel overseas for an abortion.
Mr Kenny warned his backbenchers in Fine Gael that it is their duty to legislate on the divisive issue.
“I can’t speak for everybody but I do hope that we can bring everybody with us on an issue that I know is sensitive and on which people have a range of views,” Mr Kenny said.
“It’s sensitive, it’s complex and I do hope that during the discussions that will take place between both parties that people will understand fully the intent of the Government here which is to bring clarity and legal certainty to pregnant women and doctors.”
One backbencher opposed the legislation before examining the detail while others in the Fine Gael party have expressed grave concerns, including junior minister Lucinda Creighton.
Mr Kenny insisted the bill was not an attempt to change existing laws, but rather to legislate for the X case and provide further certainty to pregnant women and doctors.
“The law on abortion in Ireland is not being changed,” he said. “Our country will continue to be one of the safest places in the world for childbirth.
“And the regulation and the clarity that will now become evident through the Protection of Maternal Life Bill will continue within the law, to assert the restrictions on abortion that have applied in Ireland and will apply in the future.”
Cabinet ministers examined 50 drafts of legislation before finally agreeing on rules at lengthy meetings yesterday.
The coalition is the first Government in Ireland to try to legislate for X.
Health Minister James Reilly offered to meet with politicians from coalition Government colleagues in Labour, his own Fine Gael party and the opposition to discuss the bill.
The reforms will ease strict rules on termination by allowing an initial panel of three doctors to assess a request to end a pregnancy.
For an abortion to be granted on the grounds of suicide risk, an obstetrician or gynaecologist and two psychiatrists must reach a unanimous decision.
A woman refused termination will be able to appeal against the decision to a second panel of three doctors of the same standing.
Dr Reilly said the legislation was written using a triangle of restrictions - the rights of a pregnant woman and the unborn child under the Constitution, the 21-year-old Supreme Court X case and the European Court of Human Rights judgment.
The new regime also allows for a termination on medical grounds to protect the life of the mother after two doctors have formed the same opinion.
As well as meeting the needs of court decisions, the Government has been under worldwide pressure for reform following the death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last autumn after she died from sepsis several days after being denied a termination during miscarriage.
Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who helped draft the legislation, claimed Mrs Halappanavar’s treatment may have been different if the legislation had been in place.
“Talking about Savita and (her husband) Praveen, they would have had access if the legislation had been in place, they would have had access to a procedure as outlined in the bill, and who knows what the situation may have been?” she said.
Dr Reilly pointed out that there was no provision in the legislation regarding a cut-off point in the gestation period – because the rights of a pregnant woman and unborn child remain equal.
“There is no cut-off point and that’s the law of the land. We can’t put a time limit on a right,” he said.
Dr Peter Boylan, one of Ireland’s most highly regarded obstetricians, welcomed the legislation and said it would bring clarity for women and medics and also give doctors confidence.
Under the regime regarding suicide, a woman will not have to be assessed in person by all the consultants. Each case can be reviewed from medical notes and in discussion.
Ultimately it states that it will be the woman’s decision whether to go ahead with a termination if cleared by the doctors.
The proposals say that at least one doctor will consult the woman’s GP and an appeal must be convened within one week of an initial refusal to terminate.
No doctor who has been involved in the initial decision making can review the same case, the bill states.