THE CABINET is expected to agree this morning on its plan of action to address the shortcoming in Irish abortion laws identified by the European Court on Human Rights last year.
Ministers will discuss the findings of the Expert Group into the European ruling on the A, B and C case, which found that the human rights of a woman living in Ireland were being breached by the failure of the government to offer clear legislation in the area.
The most likely prospect is that ministers will opt for a ‘legislation plus regulations’ model – a decision which would see the Oireachtas vote on a basic legal framework for the provision of terminations under defined and limited circumstances, with finer details filled by statutory instruments.
The ‘legislation plus regulation’ option, however, could set up political challenges for the government – and particularly for Fine Gael, several of whose TDs have openly declared their opposition to any liberalisation of Ireland’s current abortion laws, and who therefore may need convincing to back it.
One FG TD, Eoghan Murphy, yesterday called on his party to offer members a ‘free vote’ on the issue – where they would be able to vote in line with their personal ideology, and not be required to vote in line with party policy – but the prospect has been ruled out by the party leadership.
‘Chilling effect’ of existing laws
While other options are available, full legislation is seen as the avenue most likely to be taken, given that any alternative would mean an Act from 1861 – explicitly prohibiting women and doctors from carrying out abortions – would remain in place.
This law was discussed by the European Court of Human Rights in its ruling on the A, B and C case as a “chilling effect” – meaning medical professionals could still feel reluctant to carry out a termination procedure, even where the Irish courts had already found that a woman had the right to undergo one.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 – in its ruling in the ‘X Case’ – that the Irish Constitution allows abortions in cases where the life of an expectant mother is put at risk by continuing with her pregnancy. However, successive governments have opted against introducing laws to give effect to this right.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday told RTÉ that whatever decision made by Cabinet would be followed up in the New Year, saying he did not want to see the issue “left hanging around interminably”.
The Pro Life Campaign has insisted, however, that any legislation to allow abortion under the terms of the X Case ruling would “blur the distinction between life saving medical interventions in pregnancy and induced abortion”.
The Expert Group’s report was published three weeks ago, and has been extensively debated in the Dáil since then – with debate on the report wrapping up yesterday.