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No one in this government wants to deal with the abortion issue again. Here's why...

Analysis: The government legislated for abortion last summer and is highly unlikely to touch the issue again in its current lifetime.

Tánaiste Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Tánaiste Joan Burton and Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Image: Photocall Ireland

SAT IN HIS office in Government Buildings 11 months ago, Paul Kehoe let out a huge sigh as we brought up the ‘A’ word – abortion.

It was two months after the government had passed the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill following lengthy, fraught and often controversial debate and discussion inside Leinster House and across the country.

“I’ll put it this way,” he told TheJournal.ie. “I breathed a sigh of relief when the Dáil broke up on the 18 July because it was absolutely, the most stressful time for me in the Dáil ever, either as an opposition whip or government whip.”

As the man responsible for ensuring TDs vote in line with government and party policy Kehoe had ensured the vast majority of Fine Gael TDs supported the abortion bill. But several deputies and two senators were expelled from the party including the junior minister Lucinda Creighton.

Kehoe’s demeanour was one of relief, a relief that was echoed across government that finally the abortion debate was over and the matter had been dealt with – or so they thought…

The latest controversy shines a light on how the law passed last summer is actually working.

In a case that emerged late last week a very young woman, who was raped in her home country, came to Ireland, discovered she was pregnant and attempted to access a termination under the new Act on the grounds that she was suicidal.

She claims she was denied an abortion with a panel of medical experts, convened under the Act, deciding that termination should take place by way of a C-section which she underwent at around 24 weeks.

No one’s happy

No one on either side of the debate is happy about this.

Pro-choice campaigners believe it demonstrates the extent to which women in this country are treated as mere “vessels” and want the long-standing 8th Amendment repealed. Pro-life campaigners argue that this case underlines the barbarity of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act and want it repealed.

The reality is that the government will do neither of these things. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The Act is not even a year old.

It was only properly enacted at the start of this year and Health Minister Leo Varadkar is adopting a wait-and-see approach, saying this week that he will await a report into the case that is being carried out by the HSE.

In addition, it will be next June before Varadkar receives a report on how the new law is working and how many terminations have been carried out under it.

The belief is that the law is too fresh to talk about changing or repealing. Earlier this week, the minister’s spokesperson said the legislation makes matters clear for clinicians.

Some believe that the new law has, in fact, worked effectively in this case – even though not all the facts have been made clear. Labour senator John Gilroy told us this week: “I think the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act worked rather well in balancing rights in this particular case.”

The second reason for nothing to happen?

Fine Gael has no desire to revisit an issue that caused huge internal strife for the party last year.

Many of the party’s deputies feel – privately – that abortion would and should have gone untouched by this government were it not for the Savita Halappanavar case which was seen to have galvanised pro-choice campaigners, and more importantly Labour, to push for action.

‘Codify’

When passing the bill last year, Enda Kenny and government ministers repeatedly talked of “codifying” the law and providing “legal clarity” for doctors around abortion in this country. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fine Gael TDs have been virtually silent since t his latest story broke.

By contrast Labour TDs have been very vocal. The party wants to go further and is overwhelmingly for the repeal of the 8th Amendment, which enshrines the equal right to life of the woman and the unborn child. But the belief is that nothing can be done in the lifetime of this government.

Even before this controversy arose, Labour TD and new junior minister Áodhan Ó Riordáin told us in the course of an interview for our oral history project that the coalition has “no mandate now to do anything more than this in this government”.

That view was echoed by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan yesterday and the Tánaiste Joan Burton’s spokesperson said it is not an issue for the current coalition.

The reality is that Labour did not go to the people in the last election pushing for anything more than action on the X Case and there was certainly nothing in the programme for government beyond examining the outstanding issues that arose out of X.

As far as government is concerned that’s been done and no one wants a repeat of the events last year where the lobbying was so intense – ranging from plastic foetuses to death threats being sent to TDs – that there was palpable fear among the government deputies.

Perhaps John Halligan, the independent TD, put it best, when he recalled his memories of last year: “I saw fear in TDs’ eyes. I saw TDs who didn’t want to take part in the debate, would not go on the radio, would not go on the television, for fear of intimidation.”

Such fear means that the outstanding issues around abortion in this country will remain unaddressed in the lifetime of this government.

Read: ‘I saw fear in TDs’ eyes’: An oral history of how Ireland legislated for X

Read: These Labour TDs and Senators think we should have another abortion referendum

Explainer: What is the 8th Amendment?

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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