Ireland’s lawmakers were supposed to have voted by now. Will they pass the country’s first abortion bill Thursday?
The government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny has stopped predicting when its Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill will face a final vote after an 18-hour debate crashed through two deadlines and ran until 5 a.m. without conclusion.
The bill spells out rules for permitting abortions deemed necessary to save a woman’s life in a predominantly Catholic country that otherwise outlaws the practice. The government drafted the bill in response to the death last year of a hospitalized woman who was suffering a protracted miscarriage and pleaded in vain for a termination.
Kenny said the abortion debate would resume Thursday night and run for at least seven more hours, with no outcome expected until early Friday. Opposition leaders accused him of incompetence, but others blamed a system that permits lawmakers to keep talking indefinitely.
Exhaustion took its toll on government lawmakers, one of whom accidentally pressed the wrong button during a 5 a.m. vote to reject opposition amendments. The government still prevailed 124-19.
And within minutes of lawmakers resuming their seats Thursday afternoon, the speaker was telling both sides to shut up because they were making his sleep-deprived head hurt.
“There’s a lot of tired bodies in this chamber, including myself, and my tolerance level is getting less by the second listening to you lot, shouting and roaring across the chamber,” Sean Barrett said in remarks to the entire 166-member parliament.
Another lawmaker, Tom Barry, grabbed a female colleague, Aine Collins, by the hips during a 3 a.m. amendment vote and pulled her on to his lap. Both are lawmakers from County Cork in Kenny’s Fine Gael party.
Barry said he’d intended it to be a joke after Collins noted how cold the debating chamber had become with the automated heating turned off. But after the scene became a viral video in Ireland, he issued an apology describing his actions as “disrespectful and inappropriate. ... No excuses, I just shouldn’t have done it.”
As of Thursday afternoon, lawmakers had dealt with just 11 of 165 proposed amendments to the bill. The government vowed to reject them all.
Outside the parliament building, rival abortion protesters have maintained a round-the-clock vigil for two days. Police have kept them separated, except when one anti-abortion activist flicked Catholic holy water into the ranks of abortion rights protesters, Exorcist-style.
Both sides also shouted occasional insults at each other, though the anti-abortion protesters spent long periods on their knees with rosary beads in hand. At dusk, many lit votive candles. One accidentally set fire to a pro-life poster, but the flames were extinguished with more holy water.
The bill is expected to win overwhelming support whenever the vote happens. Kenny has the biggest parliamentary majority in Irish history, and his left-wing coalition partners in the Labour Party are strong advocates for legalizing abortion.
Kenny has vowed that any lawmaker who opposes the bill from his own conservative party will be expelled from his parliamentary bloc and be barred from running as Fine Gael candidates at the next election. So far just four of his 74 party lawmakers have defied him and suffered the punishment.