What happens now as provisional abortion legislation revealed

After two decades and six governments, the provisional legislation giving effect to the X case ruling on when an abortion is permissible has been revealed.

But while Labour and Fine Gael have come to an agreed position on the heads of the bill the political wrangling on the issue is far from over.

The draft laws will now be the subject of a consultative process in the Oireachtas health committee which will meet privately to decide what format its hearings should take.

It’s likely that medical and legal professionals will be brought before the committee, but not the religious representatives or pro-choice or pro-abortion groups which appeared at similar hearings in January.

In other words, those who can inform and answer technical questions on each point of the bill, rather than those who would take further emotive or ideological positions.

“I would hope that as part of that process, we will focus in on the issue of psychiatry, medicine, and legal hearings where we need to get greater clarity brought to the issue,” said the committee chairman, Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer.

The committee is also expected to agree to allow non-member TDs and senators to participate in the hearings. This will mean the group of about a dozen Fine Gael TDs who have concerns with aspects of the laws will be allocated some time to question experts.

There is a danger that some of these will use the hearings to showboat or even try to sway change in the legislation.

But Mr Buttimer was eager to point out that the purpose of hearings would be to assist them in teasing out each individual point of the legislation. And there would be no chance for them to table amendments as this is merely a consultative process.

“The language we use must be moderate and is temperate and any discussion we have is respectful of the divergent views we have.”

While risking even more dissent by allowing the issue be thrashed out among TDs and senators this way, the Taoiseach has always insisted that he wanted to allow everyone to have their say, repeating that position as recently as last week.

In keeping with this approach, Mr Buttimer said yesterday: “I think it is important that all members of the Oireachtas who wish to participate can do so and can feel that they are listened to and can engage in the process... This is about inclusiveness from our committee, it’s not about divide and conquer, it’s about bringing people with us as a committee in the consultative part of what we are doing in the heads of the Maternal Life Bill.”

These hearings will not be plain sailing. But they may help reassure some of the Fine Gael member that the safeguards provided for the suicide grounds are sufficient.

When the committee hearings are finished, the bill will go back to Cabinet to draw up the final draft which will begin the normal process of passing through the Oireachtas.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday that it’s still the intention to get the laws enacted before the House breaks for the summer recess in July.

By then, he is likely to have lost one or a few of his backbench TDs. But committee discussions between now and then could be crucial.

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