Irish abortion bill passes 1st test on 138-24 vote

DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland appeared on course to legalize abortion in extremely restricted circumstances as lawmakers voted Tuesday to support a bill that would permit pregnancies to be terminated when deemed necessary to save the woman's life.

Catholic leaders warned that the proposed law, which faces a final vote next week, would become a "Trojan horse" leading eventually to widespread abortion access in Ireland. But Prime Minister Enda Kenny insisted Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion would remain unaffected, and his government's Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill won overwhelming backing in a 138-24 vote.

Ireland's 1986 constitutional ban on abortion commits the government to defend the life of the unborn and the mother equally. Ireland's abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that this "ban" actually meant that terminations should be legal if doctors deem one essential to safeguard the life of the woman — including, most controversially, from her own suicide threats.

Six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of the Supreme Court judgment, citing its suicide-threat rule as open to abuse. This left Irish hospitals uncertain and hesitant to provide any abortions and spurred many pregnant women in medical or psychological crises to seek abortions in neighboring England, where the practice has been legal since 1967.

Four anti-abortion lawmakers from Kenny's socially conservative Fine Gael party did vote against the bill, fewer than expected given the strong Catholic traditionalist wing in his party. They particularly opposed the bill's section authorizing abortions in cases where a panel of three doctors, including two psychiatrists, unanimously rules that a woman is likely to try to kill herself if denied one.

But Kenny, who since rising to power in 2011 has frequently criticized the Catholic Church's past influence over government policy in Ireland, emphasized beforehand that he would tolerate no dissent. The four were expected to be expelled from Fine Gael's voting group in parliament and be barred from seeking re-election as Fine Gael candidates. The move would not affect Kenny's commanding parliamentary majority.

Ireland's other traditional center-ground party, the opposition Fianna Fail, did not attempt to impose such discipline because it risked tearing apart the party. Thirteen Fianna Fail lawmakers voted against the bill, while only six supported it.

Kenny won strong support from the left-wing side of the house, both from his coalition partners Labour and opposition lawmakers including the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein. Only one of Sinn Fein's 14 lawmakers voted against the bill and he, too, faces expulsion from his voting bloc.

Hours before the vote, Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics — two thirds of the island's population — appealed to Fine Gael lawmakers to rebel against Kenny.

"In practice, the right to life of the unborn child will no longer be treated as equal. The wording of this bill is so vague that ever wider access to abortion can be easily facilitated," Brady said in a statement. "This bill represents a legislative and political Trojan horse which heralds a much more liberal and aggressive abortion regime in Ireland."