THE PUBLICATION last night of the heads of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 marks the most concrete step yet to legislate for an abortion system in Ireland, following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the X Case over two decades ago.
The draft ‘heads’ of bill mark one of the early stages of the process on how longstanding and contentious proposals to legislate for abortion – allowing procedures only when the life of the mother is at risk – will eventually be transposed into law.
The process of bringing the proposals into law is by no means complete, however.
Here’s our crash course on what happens now, and how long it might all take.
Dot the Is and cross the Ts
The draft ‘heads of bill’ do not include the final wording of the legislation. In fact, they’re not even fully-worded (though the heads of this bill are significantly more substantial than the heads of previous bills).
The ‘heads of bill’ can be thought of as the ‘bare bones’ of a legal proposal. The Is have not been dotted and the Ts have not been crossed – the document published is more of a skeletal layout of how the bill will be structured and what each section (or ‘head’) will contain.
The document will now be sent to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, chaired by Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer. That’s the same committee which held a week of high-profile hearings in January where legal and medical experts, and campaigners on both sides, outlined what they wanted from the legislation.
Buttimer is convening a committee meeting tomorrow where his members will consider a timetable for any more hearings it will have, and the identities of any experts it wants to invite to offer their feedback.
It’s not clear just yet whether the second round of committee hearings will be of the same profile and intensity as the first – we’ll find out more about that after tomorrow’s meeting. Either way, the committee has a lot to think about.
When it’s done – whether after a week, or two, or more – the committee will put together a document summarising the feedback on the heads of bill, and send it back to Dr James Reilly so he can consider any technical adjustments and start building the final wording to reflect their concerns.
The nine-step process from bill to law
Ordinarily the timetable between the publication of heads of bill, a committee’s feedback, and the release of the final draft is pretty lengthy.
In one modern example – the legislation allowing for a banking inquiry – the draft heads were published in October, the appropriate Oireachtas committee sent back its feedback in February, and the final bill is due in May.
Having committed to legally introducing the new rules by the summer break (or as soon after it as possible), the timetable in this example will need to be much shorter. In fact, it’s likely that legal drafters are already working on fleshing out the heads of bill, turning them into a full draft, with the Committee offering only last-minute input.
It’s likely to be between four and six weeks, at the very earliest, before the revised edition is published – and the more traditional, and well-worn, passage of ‘how a bill becomes a law’ begins to kick in.
The legislation will probably start off in the Dáil, where there will be four stages. (Officially there are five, but the first stage – the mere introduction of the bill, without any debate on it – is bypassed whenever it’s a Government minister who ‘sponsors’ the bill.)
Those four stages are as follows:
- ‘Second stage‘ – The debate about the fundamental contents of the bill. Discussions at this stage don’t usually deal with the specific minutiae of the legislation; they’re more general and discuss the merits, or otherwise, of the government’s plans and whether the legislation in front of them is a good way of achieving them. There is a vote at the end of second stage; this will be the first chance that TDs will have to vote on the plan.
- If it’s approved at second stage, it comes to ‘committee stage‘ – and gets sent back to the Oireachtas Health committee. Members of that committee will then propose amendments to the legislation – inserting new passages, deleting others, and changing the language in some areas.
Some of these may be minor, and simply try to iron out any possible complications that could arise, while others could be more significant and try to change fundamental contents (such as deleting any passages permitting abortion in cases where the life of the mother is at risk only through suicide).
Members can call votes on each amendment, and also votes on each section – so the 21-member committee could be sat in the committee rooms, in the bowels of Leinster House, for quite some time. There’s then a final vote on whether the committee should approve the law, changed or not, and send it back to the Dáil.
- The legislation is then sent back to the Dáil in ‘report stage‘ – where other members are briefed on any changes that may have been made in the committee. Here, any TD has the chance to suggest even more changes – in theory, it allows them to undo any changes made in the committee, but occasionally there can be more significant proposals on the table. Each amendment gets a vote, and there’s then a final vote at the end of the stage.
- The final stage is, typically, ‘final stage‘. This tends to be very brief – members will probably have said everything they want to say – and is followed by a final vote, which offers TDs their final chance to roadblock the legislation.
Once the Dáil has approved the legislation, it goes to the Seanad, where a near-identical process is followed. The only difference is that ‘committee stage’ is held in the ‘Committee of the whole Seanad’ (all 60 members of the Seanad form a committee, and their meetings are held in the Seanad chamber).
Because every Senator can make a change at committee stage, report stage tends to be a lot shorter – members rarely try to push the same amendment twice if it’s already been voted down the first time.
From Teach Laighean to Áras an Úachtaráin
When both the Dáil and the Seanad have signed off, the Bill is sent to the President – who has between five and seven days to sign it into law, or convene the Council of State, which he can do if he thinks the legislation could be in breach of the constitution.
(This five-to-seven-day period can be circumvented if the Government deems it necessary, and the Seanad approves it. This procedure has been used often in the past, notably during the debate on the IBRC legislation when President Higgins signed the law barely an hour after the Seanad passed it.)
If the Council of State doesn’t assuage his fears, he can send the legislation to the Supreme Court – which will then offer a binding ruling on whether the Bill is in keeping with the Constitution. All Acts of the Oireachtas must be in harmony with the constitution – if they aren’t, the offending sections are struck out.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is final: if it says the law is okay, the President can sign it and no further legal challenge is ever permitted (the courts system can’t be asked to reconsider an issue they have already ruled on).
If the Supreme Court strikes it down, however, we’re back to square one – and the whole system will need to start all over again.