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Pro-Life campaigners need to get a grip - Irish women still have no choice over abortion

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Abortion rights marchers took to the streets in Dublin on Saturday.
Abortion rights marchers took to the streets in Dublin on Saturday.

Those so-called pro-life demonstrators at Boston College really need to get a grip.  As Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny made clear to them, Ireland has one of the most restrictive attitudes to abortion in the world.

“There is no change in the legislation in regard to abortion which has been on the statute books now since 1861,” he told them, as if that is something to be proud of.  

As we all know by now, the proposed changes in Irish law are so restrictive that abortion here will still be extremely rare, and the thousands of Irish women who want an abortion each year will still have to travel to the U.K. for one.  

One wonders where the Boston protestors were when that unfortunate Indian woman who was refused a termination in a Galway hospital died. Did they protest then at the medieval set-up in Ireland which resulted in her death?  Or are they only pro some lives?  

But enough about the Boston protestors.  We have enough pro-life zealots of our own to be worrying about, and they have been making their voices heard more often in the past two weeks as the abortion debate has got underway in the media, the country and the Dail (Irish Parliament.)

As the memory of Savita Halappanavar has faded a little they have become increasingly vocal, putting forward all kinds of far-fetched scenarios in which the "floodgates" are opened here to abortion on demand.

Myself and my 21-year-old daughter passed a group of them who had set up outside the General Post Office on O'Connell Street a few days ago (where Pearse read his Proclamation in 1916), with their placards showing bloody fetuses and a petition table for signatures "to protect the unborn."  

They were all men with austere faces who looked like they were on day release from somewhere, and they were aggressively approaching people on the pavement with their leaflets.  

"If one of them stands in front of me I'm going to punch him in the face," my daughter warned me.  "How DARE they tell me what to do with my body.  Who do they think they are?"

But really, like the protestors in Boston, they have little to be worried about.  Nothing much is going to change here on abortion.  

The absurdity of some of the proposed legal framework for the introduction of abortion here is now being exposed bit by bit.  

For example, the government's abortion bill includes a maximum 14-year prison sentence for a woman here who has an abortion outside the framework of the legislation.  As you will know by now, that framework allows abortion only in cases where the life of the mother is at serious risk, and that has to be certified by up to three doctors.

So if a woman here discovers that she has an unplanned pregnancy and decides that she cannot continue with it and takes abortion pills which she buys on the Internet, is she to be jailed for 14 years?

You might think this is absurd.  Surely something like this could never happen?

But all it takes is one zealot -- possibly a relative -- to be aware of such a situation and make a formal complaint to the police and the authorities and demand action.  The problem then is that the authorities -- as in the infamous X-case in Ireland -- would be forced into action by the law.  

Or what happens when the parents of a young pregnant teenager disagree about what to do, or disagree with their daughter about whether she is suicidal or not?   Can they prevent her from taking the morning after pill?  Or can they give her the pills if they support her decision to end a pregnancy? And if they do so might they be prosecuted?

The medical grounds for an abortion will be so limiting that there is general recognition that very few such abortions will take place here in future.  Only in cases where a continuation of a pregnancy (like in some cancer cases) will mean a substantial risk to the life of the mother will an abortion be allowed.

That is the present situation, and the only advance is that the new legislation may bring greater clarity to some situations.  

Because of this, the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion is dominating the debate.  The pro-life lobby sees this as a potential loophole through which many more women might be able to get abortions here.

The Health Committee of the Dail is holding three days of hearings on the proposed legislation, and on Monday of this week the hearing was dominated by psychiatrists giving their views.  As you know, the proposed legislation will require three doctors -- including two psychiatrists -- to certify an abortion on suicidal grounds.

As with the population at large, there are psychiatrists who disagree on the issue. But what was very clear at the Health Committee hearings was that they don't like being put in the position where they might be seen as abortion deciders.

Their concern is to care for patients, including pregnant women who may be suicidal, and several of them emphasized the difficulty they face in making assessments of suicidal intent in a very short time frame.

Of course in all of this there is one forgotten part of the debate, one sector of our population who should be part of the debate but who have been virtually excluded.  That is the estimated 200,000 Irish women who have had abortions, mainly in the U.K. since more general legal abortion was introduced there in the 1960s.

While the religious zealots and medical and legal experts have been dancing on pins here teasing out convoluted hypothetical problems to do with the proposed legislation, these 200,000 Irish women, who know more about the subject than anyone else, have been almost silenced.  

A few have managed to get their voices heard on radio and some have been interviewed in a newspaper.  In contrast to the assumption being made by some of the pro-life lobbyists, none of these women took their decision easily or lightly.

It was a difficult choice for most, made even more problematic by the need to get to the U.K., to explain away their absence, to find the money for the trip, to find out where to go and so on.

Loose talk from the pro-life lobby about "floodgates" being opened is an insult to these women, the anguish of making their decision and what they went through.

Like women everywhere, there are as many reasons why Irish women have abortions as there are individuals, individual circumstances and situations.

What is clear from their voices is that a few of them do look back with a feeling of sadness, even of regret.  But the regret is usually that their circumstances did not allow them to continue the pregnancy, not that their decision was wrong at that time and in those circumstances.  

None of us can turn the clock back, no matter how much the so-called pro-lifers may try to exploit these feelings experienced years later by some women who have had abortions.

Readers of this column will by now have gathered that this writer is a total believer in a woman's absolute right to choose.  Yes, there is another potential life involved, but the responsibility for that potential life can lie only with the woman.  The moral responsibility for that potential life and whether to allow it to happen must lie with the woman, her conscience and her instinct about what is right.

The idea that one can create laws to control what a woman can do with her own body is a fundamental denial of a woman's human rights.  No man would tolerate such a restriction or removal of his bodily integrity and freedom.

Ireland's total denial of a woman's right to choose has been a shameful blot on our republican principles for too long, and sadly is going to continue indefinitely.

I believe passionately in a woman's right to choose. I also don't  want to be punched in the face by my daughter!

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