Battle between anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners

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Media captionBBC Newsline's Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison reports on both sides of the abortion debate as they prepare for battle

The Irish government is expected to confirm in the near future that it will legislate for the credible threat of suicide as a grounds for an abortion. BBC NI's Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison reports on the battle between pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners.

It is a cold, wet day outside RTE's Dublin headquarters.

And a group has gathered - as they do weekly - to complain about what they perceive as the state broadcaster's anti-Catholic bias, a charge RTE strongly denies.

One issue above all else annoys the protestors - abortion.

PJ Mallon came from New Ross in County Wexford to voice his opinion.

'Life is sacred'

"Abortion; thou shall not kill - it's a commandment. We as Catholics and Christians believe in the commandments of God. And if you're a Christian you have to stand up for what you believe in," he said.

"And we believe that life begins in the womb and ends at the tomb. No man, no scientist, no doctor has the right to take life. Life is sacred in all its forms."

In another part of Dublin, pro-choice doctors have gathered for a conference organised by the National Women's Council in Ireland.

They believe the government's expected decision to legislate for abortion where there is a threat to the mother's life as distinct from her health is a good first step, especially as the credible threat of suicide will be included as a grounds for a pregnancy termination.

But Dr Mary Favier, said the expected legislation does not go far enough and not just because it does not allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest or where the foetus cannot survive outside the womb.

Changing attitudes

She said it will not alter the fact that 11 women leave the Republic every day for a British termination.

"Basically what we want to see is the 5,000 Irish women who travel every year will no longer have to do so and can exercise their rights to have good quality reproductive healthcare at home in Ireland. And let's accept that Ireland has abortion like every other European country has but it has to be provided in the jurisdiction of Ireland. This is what the government has to face up to and this is what the Irish people want to see changed," she said.

Several opinion polls taken since the death of the Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar suggest overwhelming support for the government's expected proposals.

Mrs Halappanavar died in a Galway last October while miscarrying. She was reportedly told she could not have an abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country.

Another pro-choice doctor, Peadar O'Grady - a consultant child psychologist - said there has been an amazing change in Irish attitudes to pregnancy termination.

Opinion polls

"Anti-choice and anti-abortion forces are now seen as a small eccentric minority, whereas before they were seen as a majority. Eighty five per cent of Irish people now support the introduction of abortion services in Ireland; a majority of general practitioners and primary care doctors also support such services but there is still a political job to be done in bringing Ireland kicking and screaming into the 21st century," he said.

That is certainly not a view shared by Richard Greene from the Christian Solidarity Party and his fellow protesters outside RTE.

He does not trust the opinion polls that suggest a sea change in Irish attitudes to abortion.

"I don't believe them," he said.

"The real question is how come 35,000 people can come out on the streets against abortion? And how come those who are promoting abortion can only get a few hundred despite being given massive coverage? And that's a phenomenon, not just in this country, but around the world."

With the Irish government hoping to have its proposed bill made law by the Dail (Irish parliament) summer break in July, both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners are getting ready for a battle lasting several months.

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