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Conservative Irish Leader Supports Easing of Abortion Ban

Speaking before the lower house of Parliament on Thursday, Mr. Martin caused a sensation when he announced that — having previously opposed any legalized abortion — he himself would vote for repeal of the Eighth Amendment and support legalized abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. Mr. Martin said that he had changed his mind after considering the evidence put before a special parliamentary committee on abortion.

In his speech, he explained in impassioned terms why he had changed his mind on the Eighth Amendment: “Because it has caused real harm to the quality of care available to pregnant women at critical moments. Because it has not and cannot change the reality that abortion is a present and permanent part of Irish life. Because it seeks to force women to carry a pregnancy to term when they have been the victim of a rape or incest or when they have received the diagnosis of a fatal fetal abnormality. Because it requires that pregnant women and doctors are faced with criminal sanctions.”

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Micheal Martin, leader of the conservative Fianna Fail party, said he reversed his position and would now vote in favor of easing Ireland’s restrictive abortion law. Credit Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Martin’s change of heart puts him at odds with many within his party. Although Fianna Fail had already agreed that it would allow its MPs and senators to vote their consciences on abortion, its grass-roots delegates voted overwhelmingly against easing the ban at the party’s annual conference in October.

The Eighth Amendment was passed in 1983 at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was still a major political and social force in Ireland. Since then, however, the church’s influence has been eroded by a series of child sex abuse scandals and revelations about the church’s past role running punitive industrial schools and Magdalene laundries for marginalized women.

Strict adherence to Catholic social and sexual teaching has steeply declined in recent decades, and a number of medical and legal scandals have led to mounting pressure for abortion reform.

In a widely publicized case in 2012, a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died in a Galway hospital after her request for an emergency termination was refused. Miscarrying, and already seriously ill, she asked for a termination to save her life but was told her nonviable fetus could not be removed while it still had a heartbeat. An inquiry later concluded that legal confusion had contributed to her death.

The case of Ms. Halappanavar revealed that the amendment “was having a bad effect on the care of women in our hospitals,” Mr. Martin, 57, said. “I also attended a presentation by women who had been forced to go to England for abortions because they had fatal fetal abnormalities. That struck home.” He added: “The Eighth hasn’t changed the reality of abortion in Ireland. The arrival of the abortion pill is a reality. But women taking it without proper medical advice is a worry.”

Mr. Martin said he did not feel isolated by his stance. “I accept that many people in the party will not be in agreement with me on this, but many people will be,” he said. “We have 20,000 members and over half a million voters. I believe there is a much greater mix of opinions there than some people think.”

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Irish people are likely to support some measure of liberalization, although the proposed 12-week limit for unrestricted abortion would still be much stricter than in most other Western countries.

“I think it’s a fair assessment now that the wording will get through Parliament, not as comfortably as people are expecting, but I think the repeal will be approved by the electorate,” said Noel Whelan, a political commentator and lawyer.

Source: NYT > World

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