DUBLIN — Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny says anti-abortion activists in his predominantly Roman Catholic country are inundating his office with threatening packages and letters condemning him as a baby-killer, some written in blood.
"I am now being branded ... around the country as a murderer, that I'm going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies," Kenny said Wednesday as he described a mass campaign to flood his post box and telephone switchboard with anti-abortion messages.
But Kenny told lawmakers his 2-year-old government was determined to reform Ireland's blanket ban on abortion in a bill being published Wednesday night following months of backroom haggling.
The proposed law would strengthen the ability of doctors to perform abortions only in rare cases where the woman's life was endangered from continued pregnancy, including her own threat to commit suicide if denied a termination.
An opinion poll being published Thursday in The Irish Times found strong public support for wider abortion rights than that proposed in the bill. But it recorded substantial opposition to suicide threats as justifiable grounds.
Ireland's lawmakers have dithered for two decades on the issue, reflecting the unpopularity of tackling a potentially vote-losing issue. They have been spurred to act following the death in a hospital last year of a woman who contracted blood poisoning during an unusually protracted miscarriage.
Kenny hopes to have the bill passed by July and is threatening to expel any of his party's lawmakers from the parliamentary bloc if they oppose him.
Kenny has presided over an unprecedented cooling of church-state relations in a country that through most of its 20th-century independence handed over control of many social services, schools and hospitals to the church.
He previously has accused Catholic leaders in Rome of directing a cover-up of child sexual abuse in Irish church ranks and shut Ireland's embassy to the Vatican in what he insisted was a cost-cutting move.
Kenny said anti-abortion lobbyists expected him to preserve overtly Catholic teachings in Irish state law. But using the Gaelic title for his office, "Taoiseach," Kenny said those days in Ireland were dying as the population increasingly followed multiple faiths or none.
"I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I'm a Taoiseach for all the people. That's my job while I have it," he said in remarks that won spontaneous applause not only from his own party, the socially conservative Fine Gael, but also from left-wing opposition lawmakers.
Kenny said many letters addressed to him contained plastic fetuses or Catholic symbols of pilgrimage and devotion, including so-called "miraculous medals" depicting the Virgin Mary and designed to provide the bearer an opportunity at last-minute salvation. He said other government lawmakers were getting similar objects and messages.
On Tuesday, Ireland's Catholic bishops issued a joint statement denouncing the government's Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill as a monstrous lie that would facilitate the gradual spread of widespread abortion in Ireland. They called on lawmakers to defy Kenny's whip and insisted that Ireland's existing legal system gave doctors enough leeway to perform life-saving abortions.
That's not a view shared by many of Ireland's leading obstetricians, who argue that most women in life-threatening medical circumstances find it far easier to travel for abortions to neighboring England, where the practice was legalized in 1967.
That issue has been in legal limbo since 1992, when Ireland's Supreme Court ruled that abortions should be legal in Ireland to protect the woman's life — including from a risk of death caused by her threat to kill herself. The case concerned a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a family friend and been blocked by the government from traveling to England for an abortion.
The Irish bill would permit such abortions only if three doctors, including two psychiatrists, ruled that the woman's threat was severe.
The Irish Times opinion poll found that 89 percent want abortions to be granted in cases where a woman's life is endangered from medical complications caused by pregnancy.
Some 83 percent also wanted abortion legalized in cases where the fetus could not survive at birth, 81 percent for cases of pregnancy caused by rape or abuse, and 78 percent where a woman's health — not simply her life — was undermined by pregnancy. The government bill excludes those three scenarios.
But the poll of 1,000 people earlier this week across this country of 4.6 million found only 52 percent support for granting abortions to women who threaten suicide, a key part of the bill, while 29 percent were opposed. And 39 percent thought abortion should be provided on demand, while 46 percent rejected this. The survey had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
The view that some Irish hospitals delay granting abortions to seriously ill women on religious grounds was highlighted by the October death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child when her uterus ruptured, dooming the fetus.
A coroner's inquest has already determined that she died six days after requesting an abortion, during which time she contracted septicemia that ultimately ruined her organs, sent her into a coma, and ended in a lethal heart attack. Witnesses confirmed that her requests to end her miscarriage were rejected because the dying fetus still had a heartbeat. It died four days before her own death.
Her case became public only because her widower publicly denounced her care and said a nurse had told him his wife's miscarriage could not be accelerated because Ireland is a Catholic country.
A government-commissioned experts' report on the Halappanavar death is being published Thursday.