DUBLIN — Ireland appeared on course to legalize abortion in limited circumstances as lawmakers voted Tuesday to support a bill that would permit a pregnancy to be terminated when deemed necessary to save a woman’s life.
Catholic leaders warned that the proposed law, which faces potential amendments this week and a final vote next week, was a ‘‘Trojan horse’’ designed to permit widespread abortion access in Ireland. But Prime Minister Enda Kenny insisted Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion would remain unaffected, and his government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill won staggering backing in a 138-24 vote.
Ireland’s 1986 constitutional ban on abortion commits the government to defend the life of the unborn and the mother equally. Ireland’s abortion law has been muddled since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled this ‘‘ban’’ actually meant that terminations should be legal if doctors deem one essential to safeguard the woman’s life — including, most controversially, from her own suicide threats.
Six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of the Supreme Court judgment, citing its suicide-threat rule as open to abuse. This left Irish hospitals hesitant to provide any abortions except for the most clear-cut emergencies and spurred many pregnant women in medical or psychological crises to seek abortions in neighboring England, where they have been legal since 1967.
Kenny’s government had been under pressure to pass a law on life-saving abortions ever since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2011 that Ireland’s inaction forced women to face unnecessary medical dangers.
In years past, a government that took on Catholic orthodoxy in Ireland would have feared damaging splits and electoral annihilation. But Tuesday’s vote illustrates changed social mores and widespread disenchantment with Catholic leaders following two decades of revelations of the Irish church’s role in protecting pedophile priests from public exposure and prosecution.
The most recent opinion poll found that 89 percent want abortions to be granted in cases where a woman’s life is endangered by a pregnancy. Some 83 percent also want abortion legalized in cases where the fetus could not survive at birth, 81 percent for cases of pregnancy caused by rape or incest, and 78 percent where a woman’s health — not simply her life — was undermined by pregnancy. The government bill excludes those three scenarios. The June 13 poll in the Irish Times had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Hours before the vote, Cardinal Sean Brady, leader of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics — two thirds of the island’s population — appealed to lawmakers in Kenny’s own party, social conservative Fine Gael, to rebel against Kenny. Previously some Catholic bishops have hinted that Kenny and other Catholic lawmakers who vote for the bill should be barred from receiving Communion at Mass, a traditional method of public shaming.
‘‘In practice, the right to life of the unborn child will no longer be treated as equal. The wording of this bill is so vague that ever wider access to abortion can be easily facilitated,’’ Brady said in a statement. ‘‘This bill represents a legislative and political Trojan horse which heralds a much more liberal and aggressive abortion regime in Ireland.’’