MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Inching towards Oireachtas approval

It is as if the cabinet lobbed the abortion issue into the committee and ran for cover as havoc ensued, writes Michael Clifford.

THREE days of hearings represents two steps forward for Enda Kenny, and perhaps one step back. The Oireachtas health committee hearings into the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill concluded yesterday after more than 30 hours of hearings since last Friday. Now, it’s onward ho to the full parliament and debate, with the bill making the hard inches towards Oireachtas approval, possibly before the Summer break.

In reality, these hearings were designed by Kenny and his honchos as a political exercise to soften up the Fine Gael parliamentarians who are opposed to the bill, and particularly the suicide provision therein.

And it largely worked. For those who might be windy about voting for the bill — numbering maybe a half dozen strong — the hearings presented the opportunity to reassure themselves, or, at the very least, feel that they are actually being listened to. Ego-massaging is a political tool, and rounding up a group of obstetricians, psychiatrists and lawyers for questioning was a nice touch in steadying nerves.

Kenny was conveniently on the far side of the Atlantic for most of that time. Some of his party members — most notably the voluble Peter Matthews — were peeved that he didn’t put in an appearance on an issue that tugs at primal chords. Even more of the Blueshirt brigade were cheesed off that the minister for health James Reilly scampered from the Seanad chamber immediately after opening proceedings. It’s as if the cabinet had lobbed the abortion issue into the committee and ran for cover as it wreaked havoc within.

It’s hard to blame the band of sceptical Fine Gaelers and their kindred spirits in other parties who attended the full hearings over the three days. The tone of contributions, and the desperation that manifested itself at times, is rooted in the belief that they are impotent to stop the march of this bill all the way into law.

In fact, at times the hearings had the appearance of a Fine Gael parliamentary party with a few, evangelical anti-abortionists from other parties and none thrown in for a bit of colour. Jerry Buttimer kept a tight rein on proceedings, only resorting to a school master’s tone on a few occasions.

The fare on the last day differed little for the previous two. A phalanx of lawyers marched into the chambers and divided into the two camps. Some old foes, like William Binchy and retired judge Catherine McGuinness, locked swords once more in what will surely be their last joust, over 30 years on from the days when they differed so much on the amendment that kicked off all the hassle over abortion.

The most cogent contribution yesterday was from barrister and doctor Simon Mills. He addressed one of the main fears of the nay-sayers — that this bill will open the mythical floodgates through which legions of women might flow demanding abortions. Mills dismissed the comparisons that have been made with other jurisdictions where abortion was introduced in limited circumstances. In particular, anti-abortion groups have repeatedly cited the experience in California in 1967, and Britain the same year.

“I’m aware of no country that introduced a test along the lines of the 2013 bill (the current bill),” he said. “California was bad legislative drafting… the English text was far vaguer than what we have here … this is restrictive. Nobody has been able to point to an identical bill.”

His point was notable because the other precedents were cited over the days, and in the wider debate over the last few months.

Anthony McCarthy, a peri-natal psychiatrist who gave evidence on Monday, was of the opinion that the bill would change little. Those who always went to Britain would continue to do so, he said, rather than be subjected to the strictures of the restrictive regime that the bill would herald.

Catherine McGuinness pointed to the most vulnerable being the only ones who might end up being provided for in the new law. “Anybody who has the means to go abroad will go abroad,” he said. “On the other hand, we need to deal with the under 18s and people who haven’t got the capacity.”

Despite the fears that have been generated, fanned and pumped up, it’s difficult to see how anything but a handful of cases will be come under the new law. The general population can rest assured that the issue will continue to be sub-contracted out to the UK in particular, and everybody can continue pretending that there is no abortion in Ireland.

The suicide issue was at the kernel of the hearings, and among some of the interesting insights into the blight was one from Professor Kevin Malone of UCD. He claimed that inclusion of a suicide provision would “normalise” suicide, which could lead to more young people losing their lives. His opinion, while highly valued, was relatively isolated on that issue.

One way of the other, the dye is cast. The hearings may bring about amendments in areas such as the provision of minors, and particularly those in care. But overall, the general thrust of the bill, thrashed out over 50 drafts between the coalition parties, will remain intact. A few Fine Gaelers will go overboard, but nothing like the 20 or so it was once feared might be lost.

Fianna Fáil has a problem of a different hue. Finance spokesman Michael McGrath called for a free vote yesterday, putting it up to his party leader. At the hearings, the health spokesman Billy Kelleher acquitted himself well, but the other side of the party was ably represented by Senator Jim Walsh. The party has all the appearance of being split down the middle on the issue. It hasn’t completely gone away. The age old problem of abortion has the potential yet to do some damage in the political arena.

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