DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's Europe minister quit on Thursday over plans to legalise abortion for the first time as Prime Minister Enda Kenny pressed ahead with legislation that has polarised the staunchly Roman Catholic country.
Kenny has provoked a strong backlash by pushing for access to abortion when a woman's life is in danger. Both sides of the debate have attacked Kenny's stance and the government has faced down more rebels on the issue than it did over its painful economic austerity plans.
Lucinda Creighton, once tipped as a possible leader of the Fine Gael party, was automatically expelled from its grouping in parliament for voting against an amendment to the new law and will lose her role as minister for European affairs.
"When it comes to something that is essentially a matter of life and death, I think it is not really possible to compromise," Creighton told state broadcaster RTE after the vote.
Parliament is continuing a debate that began on Wednesday and lasted until 5 a.m. on Thursday, and deputies have not yet voted on the main law. Kenny said the debate will be extended until Friday if necessary.
The law is expected to pass easily because the coalition government has a large majority.
The two-decade debate over how Ireland should deal with a Supreme Court ruling that abortion be permitted when a woman's life is in danger was reopened last year after the death of a woman who was denied an abortion of her dying foetus.
The ruling was the result of a challenge, by a 14-year-old rape victim in the so-called "X-case" of 1992, to a constitutional amendment nine years earlier that intended to ban abortion in all instances.
Kenny has met resistance from some within his conservative Fine Gael party and has also faced a concerted campaign by Ireland's once powerful Catholic Church, which is putting pressure on lawmakers.
Kenny told parliament he had been sent plastic foetuses and letters written in blood, and his private house has been picketed by protesters wearing skeleton masks.
Outside parliament, anti-abortion activists recited prayers and held up pictures of aborted foetuses.
"This is a terrible crime on the heart and soul of this nation," said Rita Daly, a 56-year-old civil servant. "This is the intentional killing of our children, our flesh and blood."
The Church, rocked by a series of child abuse scandals, has seen its public influence wane since the 1980s, and a younger, secular generation wants to end the practice of Irish women travelling to nearby Britain to terminate their pregnancies.
In a sign of how contentious the abortion issue is, Kenny - midway through a five-year term - has lost five of the 76 deputies to the abortion debate, compared with just one over economic austerity measures even as his coalition made deep cuts under an 85 billion euro ($109 billion) EU/IMF bailout.
Dozens of Protesters camped overnight outside parliament, mostly anti-abortion and a few in favour of a more liberal bill.
"Under the current law I face life in prison, under the new law I face 14 years," said Suzanne Lee, a 23-year-old student who said she took an abortion pill last year.
"I don't understand why the Catholic church has such a grip in Ireland," she said.