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Abortion in Ireland: divorcing Church from State?

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent


The Dáil, (the Irish Parliament), is expected to conduct the first of a series of votes on the controversial issue of abortion in the coming days. If passed, the new legislation will allow abortion in Ireland in limited circumstances.

image captionThe thorny issue of abortion is once more back at the top of the political agenda in Ireland

Until now, abortion has been banned in the Republic, a traditionally Catholic county. But figures suggest at least 11 women leave every day for an abortion in Britain. BBC NI Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison reports on current Church-State relations in Ireland.

There was a time when the Irish state and the Catholic Church had a very cosy relationship.

But the revelations of child sex abuse by priests and its cover-up by bishops, more worried about the Church's reputation than the plight of the victims, changed all that.

In the Dáil on 12 June, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, with a nod towards John F Kennedy, told the House: "I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic taoiseach."

Abortion, as an issue, arouses strong passions and the taoiseach made those remarks in answer to a question on the subject.

Outside the Dáil, pro-life campaigners gathered to say the rosary in the hope that their prayers would help defeat the government's bill.

The coalition's proposal - to allow terminations when three medics all agree a mother is suicidal because of her continuing pregnancy - is divisive.

Anti-abortion campaigners believe that the bill will, for the first time, allow for the intentional killing of the unborn in the Republic of Ireland.

For them, it is not just a religious but a human rights issue, as the mother and foetus have equal rights to life.

Fr Derek Doyle, a parish priest in the relatively deprived area of Jobstown in Tallaght, south west Dublin, said: "No matter how a child has been conceived it has a right to life.

image captionPro-choice activists in Ireland want to end the stigma surrounding abortion

"And we as Catholics, as a Catholic priest, as a Catholic nation, have a right and a human right to highlight the importance of human life from the womb to the tomb."

When asked in a newspaper article about ex-communication, Eamon Martin, the incoming Catholic Primate, said those TDs and senators who voted for the abortion legislation ex-communicated themselves.

But Senator Ronan Mullen, who has strong pro-life views, said ex-communication was a red herring.

"Politicians like to make a big play down here that they're somewhat standing up to the Catholic Church. But that's a juvenile thing really at this stage. Everybody knows this issue is about Church v State; it is about a child's life and the mother's best interest," he said.

This is not a view shared by the Omagh-born novelist and journalist, Martina Devlin, who has pro-choice views.

In her Irish Independent newspaper column, she praised the taoiseach for not bending the knee to the Church on the abortion issue, indicating that his remarks on 12 June marked the day that democracy took precedence over theocracy.

She said the Catholic bishops had stepped back from the threat of ex-communication for those who support the government's abortion proposals.

"They talk about it now in terms of being a red herring. But it was a red herring that was dangled by senior clerics. And once it would have beaten a recalcitrant politician back into line but not any more. And that's why I say we can see the beginning of the separation of Church and State in the Republic," she said.

The Dáil is due to have the first of the votes on the bill in coming days. The legislation is expected to pass comfortably.

It is another sign of the changing Church-State relationship in Ireland.

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