Ministers in Ireland besieged by pro-life militants

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Regular weekend picketing of Irish cabinet ministers' constituency homes by anti-abortion groups has put them and their families under siege in an increasingly confrontational turn in the "pro-life" campaign.

The latest target is the Health Minister, Michael Noonan, whom pro-lifers accuse of being insufficiently anti-abortion. His Limerick home has been picketed for several months, though he has not made it a public issue. An unlikely target to many, the blunt-speaking ex-schoolteacher and former justice minister is hardly the most liberal member of the centre-right Fine Gael party led by Taoiseach John Bruton. Mr Noonan has been singled out in demands for a new referendum to outlaw all terminations.

Irish politicians face vociferous pressure to state their anti-abortion credentials. In north Dublin, Fine Gael Justice Minister Nora Owen recently received the same treatment. Mr Noonan's predecessor, Brendan Howlin, Labour MP for Wexford, was similarly targeted with demonstrations outside his mother's home.

The law on abortion has been in confusion since the 1992 "X" case, involving a suicidal 14-year-old initially barred by a High Court injunction from going to Britain for an abortion. It was lifted by the Supreme Court after an international furore.

In the aftermath, which saw US funds and personnel arriving to help the pro-life cause, the then Fianna-Fail-Labour government of Albert Reynolds held referendums which upheld a woman's right to abortion information and to travel abroad for a termination. Liberals and conservative voters combined to defeat a parallel but unclear proposal that would have allowed abortion when the life of the mother (as opposed to her health) was at risk, a formulation based on the Supreme Court's view in the "X" case.

Anti-abortion campaigners have been pressing ever since for a new vote. This month, amid a dispute over unproven claims that an abortion took place in a Dublin in 1995, they seized on a poll indicating 65 per cent of voters thought the issue should be resolved by another referendum. The survey did not seek to determine the balance for or against liberalising the law, and just 26 per cent in favour of the Dail settling the issue suggested both sides were unhappy with the current legal mess. Family- planning groups maintain Irish women in any case prefer the confidentiality of an abortion in Britain to risk of discovery at home, a choice reinforced by the fixing of the right to travel into the constitution in 1992.

Pro-life campaigners this week held a rally in Dublin, where they were encouraged to increase pressure for the third anti-abortion referendum since 1983. The Pro-Life Campaign chairman, former Senator Des Hanafin, unveiled a position paper "A New Amendment - The People's Right," calling for an additional clause in the constitution reading "No law shall be enacted, and no provision of this Constitution shall be interpreted, to render induced abortion lawful in the State."

A Labour source said the defeat of anti-divorce groups in the 1995 referendum has led right-wing Catholics to return to the battle, with a general election imminent. "During canvassing about one in every 15 or 20 doors will be slammed in your face because you are a member of the Labour Party and we are perceived to be liberal."