THERE HAS been a mixed political reaction to a suggestion by Fine Gael Minister of State Brian Hayes that a free vote should be held if and when abortion legislation comes before the Oireachtas.
A report on the issue from an expert group, appointed by Minister for Health James Reilly last January and chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, is expected at the end of this month.
The group was asked to address the outcome of last year’s European Court of Human Rights ruling that the State had failed to implement existing rights to lawful abortion where a mother’s life was at risk.
The European court ruled that the State had violated the rights of a woman with cancer who said she had been forced to travel abroad to get an abortion.
The court ruled that neither medical nor litigation options available to the woman constituted “effective or accessible procedures” for her to establish a lawful abortion.
In the event that legislative proposals are brought forward following publication of the report, Mr Hayes told The Irish Times, a free vote would be a way of dealing with the issue.
“It’s something I believe the Government should consider, if and when the time comes. We shouldn’t let this issue be a huge bone of contention for the Government and the parties in the Government. This isn’t a party-political issue. I don’t believe there is a definitive Fine Gael or Labour position. This is an issue for individual Deputies to make up their mind on,” he said.
The suggestion was welcomed by Fianna Fáil leader in the Seanad Darragh O’Brien who said: “It is an issue that’s above politics and a free vote would be something that I personally would support on this.”
However, he said people should first see what was in the report when it came out: “Let’s debate it in a respectful way.”
Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney expressed concern that a free vote would leave individual TDs and Senators open to “obsessive lobbying by one side or the other” on the issue.
“My instinct says that it should be debated internally and a position adopted by each party in Leinster House.”
Speaking on RTÉ Radio, Fine Gael TD for Meath East Regina Doherty refused to rule out a dissenting position if the Government sought to introduce abortion legislation in the Dáil.
“At any stage, during any piece of legislation, any backbencher, frontbencher, Minister – junior or otherwise – has the opportunity, if they sincerely disagree with a piece of legislation, to vote against their party,” she said.