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Abortion debate was a sham, nothing has changed for Irish women

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Anti-abortion protesters pictured outside Leinster House last Thursday evening.
Anti-abortion protesters pictured outside Leinster House last Thursday evening.

Last week was abortion week in Ireland.  A shameful 30 years after the X-Case (involving a pregnant and suicidal 14-year-old rape victim who the Irish state attempted to stop having an abortion in the U.K.), the Dail (Irish Parliament) passed the first law ever to allow abortion in Ireland, albeit within extremely restrictive limitations.

In practical terms, there will be no change for Irish women.  The thousands of Irish women who go to the U.K. for abortions every year will continue to do so since abortion here will only be available in extreme medical cases in which the life of the mother is at substantial risk.  

The circumstances under which such abortions will be carried out have already been laid out in detail in this column and elsewhere in recent months.  They are so restrictive that some medical experts have predicted that only a handful of abortions will take place here every year.

This is more or less the situation at present in Irish hospitals when abortions or "early deliveries" sometimes happen during the treatment of a mother whose life is in danger.

Abortion in cases of rape, including child rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality (where the fetus is so compromised that it will be unable to live outside the womb) and in some other extreme circumstances, will not be allowed under the new legislation. 

All this legislation does is put into law the situation decided years ago by national referendums and a Supreme Court decision giving the mother and the fetus an equal right to life. 

Not that you would think that from the week of high drama we have been through here. It was a week of marches, protests, all night vigils outside the Dail, extended TV coverage that went on around the clock as the Dail sat through the night to 5 a.m., politicians (including a junior minister) being expelled from their party for refusing to vote in favor of the bill. 

In the end the bill went through, taking up more hours on live TV and acres of space in newspapers, with lengthy interviews with troubled members of the Dail wrestling with their consciences and words like historic and ground-breaking being thrown around.  

The bill was nothing of the sort. It was pathetic and cowardly, failing in any meaningful way to face up to the fact that Irish women, like women everywhere, have abortions. 

The only difference is they don't have them here. They have them in the U.K.

The situation here is crying out for a more sympathetic abortion regime, in particular to deal with rape, incest and the other difficult cases mentioned above.

The new legislation should have been concerned with that and with the detailed regulation of a slightly wider abortion regime that would have given more weight to a woman who stated that she was suicidal because of the pregnancy.   In cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality that would not have been too much to expect from a government with any courage, particularly since recent national opinion polls have shown majority support for such changes. 

But it was not to be.  Instead, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and his government played safe, ducked the issues and introduced a new law that is so minimalist it is almost meaningless. It will certainly mean nothing to thousands of women here who have abortions in the U.K. every year.  

The level of debate in the Dail, particularly during the all night sitting, was very poor, with members making repetitive and sometimes contradictory speeches, some of which were barely coherent, even infantile.  

Maybe it was the heatwave here, or maybe it was something to do with the Member's Bar in the Dail staying open all night, but the debate was ridiculous at times and the Dail chamber was a sorry sight. 

The worst moment came when one male member grabbed a passing female member and pulled her onto his lap for a few seconds, an incident that was captured by the Dail cameras and has now gone viral.  It was a very stupid thing to do, not least because of the subject being debated.  

Another member was so addled by what was going on that he voted the wrong way "by accident." The night was almost comical, except that it was so tiresome -- and so tragic since it affects the lives of thousands of Irish women.  

The most contentious point in the bill for the troubled members of the house was, of course, the proposal to allow a suicide threat as grounds for an abortion.  But as we pointed out here already, this is circumscribed by an extremely tight framework. 

There will be no question of a woman simply declaring that she is feeling suicidal and then being allowed an abortion.  Her declaration will be tested in interviews by a panel of two psychiatrists and one obstetrician in a process that will be very demanding for her.

The assessment may continue for hours or even days.  If the panel decision is not unanimous she will not be allowed an abortion.  

In no circumstances is the law that passed in the Dail last week supportive of a woman's right to choose. 

In all cases, whether it is a woman who is seriously suicidal or a woman facing difficult cancer treatment, the decision on whether an abortion is permissible under this law will be taken by the medical professionals.  They will listen to the woman.   But they will decide. 

Savita Halappanavar, the young woman who died of septic shock last October in Galway after being refused an abortion, was mentioned several times during the debate.  It was claimed by those opposing the bill that if this law had been in place it would not have made any difference to her.  

Those supporting the bill said repeatedly that the new legislation would bring "clarity" for medical practitioners and this might have saved her because it might have given her doctors the confidence to act earlier.

But despite all of the guff about "clarity," the fact is that the situation for women in Irish hospitals who face such difficult medical situations is still as clear as muddy water.  As in the Savita case, knowing when the risk to a mother's life becomes substantial enough to allow an abortion is far from easy.

Some doctors may tolerate a higher level of risk than others.  Even though it is the woman's body and the woman's life, the decision will remain out of her hands.

And unless the situation is an extreme and immediate life-threatening crisis for the woman the decision will be taken by two senior doctors, not one.

In the case of a woman who is suicidal, again there is no right for the woman to be in on decision. She will put her case and be assessed. 

But the doctors (three of them) will decide.  If they say no she can appeal to another panel of three doctors which is likely to take days.

This very restrictive regime does not sit well with the decision taken years ago by the Irish people in a referendum to uphold a woman's right to travel.  This decision was taken by the Irish people so that women could continue to travel to the U.K. and elsewhere to procure abortions.  

In many such cases abortion is allowed on the basis of a possible suicide risk declared by the woman.   When the Irish people passed the referendum in question they were well aware of this. 

It seems clear that the Irish people then were saying that a woman who says she is suicidal has the right not only to travel but also has the right to be at least a major part of a decision to allow her to have an abortion because of the suicide risk.  Yet the legislation fails completely to recognize that.

It is yet another Irish solution to an Irish problem, that problem being our inability to deal with reality, the reality that thousands of Irish women have abortions every year.     

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