Abortion debate underway in Ireland - hard questions need to be asked and the country's Catholic history reviewed

A pro-life poster in Dublin to publicize a rally.
Here's a question for you on abortion -- imagine you have a pregnant daughter who has developed a medical condition which will mean that if she continues with the pregnancy and has the baby her health in the future may be damaged.   She may not die, but her long-term health may be compromised.

What do you do?  Do you encourage her to have an abortion, or do you advise her to take the chance and go ahead with the pregnancy for the sake of the fetus she is carrying?

There is no easy answer to a question like this.  Even if you believe in a woman's right to choose, is an abortion in such circumstances right if your daughter is half way through her pregnancy?  Or is the line of acceptability even later or much earlier in her pregnancy?

Let's take a different scenario, one in which no health issues are involved, the woman is healthy and the pregnancy is progressing normally.   In many western countries the right of a woman to choose whether to continue with a pregnancy is accepted up to the end of the first trimester, or 12 weeks. 

The rules vary -- in many countries a woman is expected to give physical or psychological reasons why she cannot continue -- but in practice the decision is hers. 

Beyond that time frame it becomes more difficult, with a wide variation in what is permissible. Between 12 and 20 weeks, abortions in some countries can be difficult to get, with more assessment and paper work required.  Late term abortions (at 20 weeks or later) are contentious even in liberal countries.    

Even countries which have had legislation and services in place for years still find abortion a difficult matter to deal with, the U.S. being an example.  In cases of incest or rape, or serious fetal abnormality, early abortions are accepted without question in many countries, although even these are opposed by many in the pro-life movement.  

So to repeat, there are no easy answers to questions about abortion. 

The debate in other countries has been going on for decades.  Here in Ireland -- Holy Catholic Ireland -- somehow we never got around to it. 

Instead we exported the problem and turned a blind eye as thousands of Irish women every year traveled to Britain for an abortion.  This allowed us to adopt a superior moral position and claim that there was no abortion in Ireland.  Talk about being holier than thou!

As societies in the west faced reality over the past 50 years or more and became more conscious of the rights of women, legislative changes happened elsewhere allowing abortion in defined circumstances. 

Aware that this was happening elsewhere, in Ireland around 30 years ago conservative Catholics got together and campaigned for a constitutional amendment which would prevent the introduction of abortion in Ireland.   They believed this would prevent a government sneaking abortion in by legislation. 

To introduce abortion, a government would have to have a referendum (a national vote) to remove the constitutional prohibition.

The Catholic fundamentalists put pressure on our politicians to introduce a constitutional amendment and our gutless politicians, afraid to refuse because it might give the impression that they were pro-abortion, went along with the idea.

The 1983 referendum was passed after a bitter debate. It inserted wording into the Constitution which acknowledged the right to life of the unborn and the equal right to life of the mother.  

This lacked definition, although it seemed to mean that any abortion from the moment of conception was unacceptable, even in cases of rape or incest or fetal abnormality.  It also failed to define exactly what would happen if there were a conflict between the life of the fetus and a very sick mother.  

This might have been cleared up to some degree if legislation had followed, but none did.  There were many liberal voices in Ireland at the time -- this happened in the 1980s, not the 1950s -- who warned that this was a dangerous legal situation, leaving doctors and women vulnerable, and could result in deaths in Irish hospitals. 

The 1861 law we had inherited from the British meant that abortion was already illegal in all circumstances, and it could be argued that the amendment had modified the application of that.  But no one was sure and successive governments were too cowardly to legislate.     

Nine years later, in 1992, we had the X case.  X was a 14 year old girl who became pregnant after statutory rape and was suicidal.  Her parents made preparations to take her to Britain for an abortion, which she wanted, but the attorney general in Ireland got an injunction in the High Court to stop her traveling.

The case caused uproar and Ireland was compared to a police state like East Germany.

After an appeal, the Supreme Court decided that the girl could travel because evidence showed her to be suicidal and therefore she had a right to an abortion under the 1983 referendum wording which guaranteed "the equal right to life of the mother."

In its decision, the Supreme Court said that the girl could have an abortion because there was a real and substantial risk to her life, instead of just to her health. 

In fact the girl had a miscarriage shortly after the Supreme Court judgment.  But the phrase "a real and substantial risk to the life of a woman, as opposed to her health" became the test by which medical staff would work to from then on.  

But again, there was no legislation to give clarity to what the Supreme Court finding would mean in medical situations.

Another referendum was quickly held and passed on the right of women to travel and to information about abortion.  A third part of that referendum to remove possible suicide as grounds for an abortion was rejected by the people.  A further attempt 10 years later, in 2002, to remove the suicide grounds, also failed.  

Over all this time -- it's now 20 years since the X case -- there has been no legislation to bring clarity to the grounds for abortion in Ireland.   Twenty years ago the Supreme Court produced a broad principle based on the Constitution, but we need detailed legislation to make clear what medical staff are allowed to do in our hospitals.

The failure to do this may have been what killed Savita Halappanavar, the unfortunate Indian woman who died in a Galway hospital last year.  That caused uproar here, and rightly so. 

We are still awaiting the findings of the official investigation into what happened.  But there seems to be little doubt that some of the medical staff in the hospital felt that the Constitution prevented them from acting on the woman's requests for an immediate termination to end her prolonged miscarriage. 
She died from septicemia.

That appalling case put abortion back on the public agenda here.  But it was already on the government's agenda because the European Court of Human Rights a couple of years ago demanded action here on legislation after several women brought cases to Europe seeking clarity. 

The present government set up an expert group to report on possible abortion legislation and that took a year or more to produce its advice, giving several options. 

The one the government is going for -- the only one that makes any kind of sense -- will allow for abortion here under very restrictive conditions.   A request for an abortion may have to be approved by not one but two senior doctors, for example. 

Last week saw the debate on abortion opened out into the public arena when the outline for proposed legislation was the subject of three days of special hearings before the Oireachtas (Parliament) Joint Health Committee.

The committee was given the task of hearing testimony and preparing a report for the minister for health who will bring in the legislation for abortion in Ireland.

All the interest groups trooped in to have their say, the doctors, lawyers, constitutional experts, campaign organizations both pro-life and pro-choice,  religious groups and even the atheists.  (This was another tactic by the government to widen responsibility for whatever happens by consulting everyone, and they are playing it brilliantly.)

To everyone's surprise, the presentations and questions proceeded in a mature, civilized fashion, a welcome contrast with the hysteria that gripped the country in the 1980s.  Maybe we've grown up a bit since then. 

There was most concern at the hearings about the so-called suicide risk -- where a pregnant woman claims she must have an abortion because the pregnancy is making her suicidal.  Twenty years ago Catholic fundamentalists here tried to have the suicide option ruled out, but this was rejected by the people in two national votes.  Despite this, they are at it again.

The likely result is that a suicide risk as the grounds for an abortion will be very restricted, with possibly two senior doctors, one of them a psychiatrist, needing to give their approval.  There is also likely to be an appeal system when a woman is not happy with what the doctors decide and that could take a final decision even further away. 

Another idea is that the decision will involve doctors from more than one hospital.   It all sounds like a lengthy and difficult way of dealing with these situations.

One organization giving its views to the committee last week was the Catholic Church, with a bishop present to lay down the law.  And that's what he did. Some things never change. 

The arrogance from such a discredited organization is breathtaking.  One reader of the Irish Independent reacted by posing the question, “What do they want, more unwanted babies who will have to be adopted and taken into institutions where they will be fodder for abusing priests?”

That may be a bit extreme, but the reader had a point.

There will be more detailed coverage of the church's position here as the abortion debate develops in the weeks ahead. 

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