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Ireland backs easing abortion law

DUBLIN — Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Friday to legalize abortions in exceptional cases where doctors deem the woman’s life at risk from her pregnancy, as the predominantly Catholic country took its first legislative step away from an outright ban.

Exhausted legislators applauded the 127-31 vote, while outside the Parliament gates abortion rights activists cheered as they watched the result on their smartphones. It capped a grueling debate that locked lawmakers in argument from Wednesday morning to 5 a.m. Thursday and, after a pause for sleep, through midnight into Friday.

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While the decisive outcome was expected given Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s lopsided parliamentary majority, passage of the bill damaged Kenny’s 2-year-old coalition government. Catholic conservatives vowed to drive his centrist Fine Gael party from power for violating its 2011 campaign pledge not to legislate on abortion.

Also, Kenny expelled five of his 74 lawmakers from Fine Gael’s parliamentary group for voting against the bill.

The government drafted the bill in response to last year’s case of a miscarrying woman who died in a hospital from blood poisoning nearly a week after being refused a termination. The death highlighted Ireland’s failure for two decades to draft abortion legislation in support of a 1992 Supreme Court judgment ruling that life-saving abortions, including to prevent suicides, should be legal in Ireland.

Many lawmakers in the round-the-clock debate expressed fears that the bill’s passage would put Ireland on a slippery slope to granting wider abortion rights, as has happened in the rest of Europe. Malta is the only other European Union member to outlaw the practice.

Divisions ran deepest on the bill’s provisions permitting an abortion for a suicidal woman if a three-doctor panel agrees she would try to kill herself if denied a termination.

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