I thought I understood the law on abortion until the Miss D case was heard last week. Its complexities left me utterly confused which appeared to place me in the same boat as many fine legal minds. Now that we have Mr Justice Liam McKechnie’s judgement, the law appears to be this: the right to life of the unborn cannot interfere with the right to travel for an abortion.
This means that any pregnant woman, even a teenager in the care of the state must be allowed travel for an abortion regardless of the circumstances. She might need the abortion if her life is at risk, if the baby is unviable or if it was conceived under unfavourable astrological conditions. Not only can she go, but if any agency or officer of the State tries to uphold the right to life of the unborn child by stopping her, they will lose their case in court and get a slap on the wrist from the judge for even trying. Is it official now? Ireland has state sanctioned abortion on demand provided it takes place in England. And whose fault is it? With delicious irony, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: the Pro-Life movement.
This whole sorry mess started in 1983 when the Garret Fitzgerald led government rejected the Fianna Fail proposed referendum on abortion. Peter Sutherland was the Attorney General who examined the wording and warned Garret and his cabinet that the amendment was flawed on several counts, one of which was that it could actually enshrine the right to an abortion in the constitution. What followed was an extremely bitter debate in which Fine Gael was accused of trying to introduce abortion into Ireland. The fact that the X case proved Sutherland right has become irrelevant. The subsequent referenda on travel and information all follow from this foolish 1983 so-called “pro-life” amendment.
Let’s do a quick summary of the political position today: Labour is the only party willing to commit to legislation for abortion in this country. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have specifically stated they have no plans to provide legislation. The Progressive Democrats and the Green Party have no policy at all and Sinn Fein has issued a statement which includes key words like “compassion” but says absolutely nothing about their plans to legislate. They say the decision rests with the woman, but given this distinct lack of enthusiasm for legislation the decision appears to incorporate deciding whether to fly Aer Lingus or Ryanair.
And who can blame them? We get the politicians we deserve who work on the issues that we demand. If Irish people really wanted to deal with our dirty linen and sort out abortion once and for all, then politicians would give in to those demands. Instead the political consensus is preservation of the status quo. Here’s what that means: Every year, Irish women in their thousands should buy cheap airline tickets and slip off to England to deal with their unseemly little problems. When they come back they should keep quiet so we can pretend that there’s no abortion in Ireland. And if any complicated cases should come to court, could they please, unlike the uncooperative Miss D, pretend they are suicidal? Then the campaigners on either side can sit back and shriek about the disgrace of it all.
If you’re pro-life it’s a disgrace that judges are bringing in abortion. If you are pro-choice it’s a disgrace that women are forced into court. Everyone else is spared the challenge of working out their own position in a logical manner.
Logic of course, has been a distant relation of the abortion debate. I met a canvasser yesterday who said one woman mentioned it on the doorsteps. She was delighted that Enda Kenny wouldn’t try to introduce abortion into Ireland but that she was worried about Labour. Doesn’t she get it? Are these pro-lifers so blinded by their passion that they cannot see that we have abortion? Do they really believe that taking the life of an unborn child in England rather than Ireland somehow negates the act? But since these hysterics shout loudest then Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are afraid of them.
The time has come for political action and we are all going to have to be sensible about it. Let’s go through the main parties again. Labour’s policy is the one that I favour. They are committed to bringing forward legislation to provide for the termination of pregnancy where there is a risk to the life of the woman, including the risk of suicide; where foetal abnormality is such that the foetus will never be born alive (like Miss D’s case), and where there is a risk of significant injury to the physical health of the mother. The pro-lifers will jump up and down about this but I firmly believe a majority of people in the country would agree to abortion in these circumstances.
Legislating for the circumstances outlined by Labour is sensible and the least that the women of Ireland deserve. Irish women who discover that their baby cannot live or that their own health is dangerously at risk should not have to go to England like criminals in order to have a termination. Their doctors are denied important medical records and the babies don’t get post mortems. In fact, in 2002, the then masters of the three main maternity hospitals agreed that terminations in cases like Miss D should be available in Ireland.
In order for these proposals to have some hope of being passed in the Dail and without the debate descending into hysteria Fianna Fail and Fine Gael must change their positions. Fine Gael will have to get over the hammering they took from their conservative base so many years ago. Perhaps an election win might give them some confidence on the issue. Fianna Fail has been in power for 13 of the 15 years since the X case and refused to bring in legislation. Their policy is to do nothing when in power and oppose legislation when not in power.
It’s easy to blame the HSE for Miss D’s problems, but the truth is if we don’t ask our politicians to provide legislation then her plight is our fault.
There is no point complaining about the trauma Miss D has suffered unless those with a liberal attitude to abortion demand legislation. Thousands of women in Ireland have had abortions. Other woman should be capable of putting themselves in their shoes. All those women have husbands and partners and friends. Where are their voices? Down the pub grumbling about the HSE and Miss D instead of on the streets pushing our politicians off the fence.