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Ireland passes historic law allowing limited abortion rights for the first time

Church handed a rare defeat, but legislation only covers severely limited number of cases

Ireland has a new abortion law designed to dispel decades of ambiguity, but passage of the law has involved months of turbulence, late sittings and unseemly parliamentary behaviour.

The legislation, which came into being after many bruising exchanges and highly divisive debate, arrived with a distinct lack of dignity. Many of its supporters greeted it not with celebration but with relief.

As a result, a landmark piece of Irish legislation will be remembered by some for episodes such as “Lapgate”.

This was the televised early-morning moment in parliament when a government backbencher pulled a female colleague on to his lap. The backbencher apologised and was reprimanded  by his party, but women’s groups and others have held it up as an example of the sexism that survives in Irish politics.

The marathon parliamentary sessions will also be remembered for the Speaker telling representatives that his head hurt “after listening to you lot shouting and roaring across the chamber”. The prolonged exchanges taxed both politicians and the Irish public.

But the new legislation will actually affect only a small proportion of Irish women who seek abortions, for example on medical grounds or in cases where suicide is regarded as a danger.

“It is the very, very bare minimum of a Bill, but at the same time it feels like the end of an era,” said Eleanor White, 21, one of a handful of pro-abortion rights activists gathered outside parliament – outnumbered by opponents of the Bill. “We are getting to the end of the role the Catholic Church has had in Ireland,” she said.

Standing nearby, anti-abortion activists prayed and cheered deputies who opposed the Bill as they left the building. “This is a terrible crime on the heart and soul of this nation,” said Rita Daly, a 56-year-old civil servant, holding a picture of an aborted foetus. “This is the intentional killing of our children, our flesh and blood.”

The new law is expected to have little effect on the “abortion trail” – the steady flow of women travelling to clinics in Britain. The latest figures show that last year almost 4,000 went to England and Wales for abortions.

The traditional Irish opposition to abortion was shattered last year when Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital when she was denied an abortion after miscarrying.

Shock at Ms Halappanavar’s death, and a European judgement criticising Irish law for a lack of clarity, galvanised the government into bringing forward the legislation. In previous abortion controversies the Catholic church and dedicated pro-life groups have prevailed against attempts at legal reform, but this time both public and political opinion was strongly in favour of change.

The vote, which was 127 to 31 in favour, was in line with opinion polls showing that more than 70 per cent thought the law should be relaxed.

The church now faces a rearguard battle, with bishops saying they intend to mount a legal challenge. But the tide of opinion is clearly running strongly against the church, certainly in terms of obeying its direction in this matter.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has a strong personal faith but has heavily criticised the church for failing to act in matters of clerical child abuse. During the abortion debates he insisted he was “a public representative, who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”

In this case he found himself leading a campaign against the church’s position, ending with a potentially historic setback for the institution.

Video: Irish MP apologises for inappropriate behaviour during abortion debate