Reluctant politicians need to get real and change law on abortion

By Colette Browne

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

IF Labour is wondering why its support has suffered a vertiginous drop since last year’s election it need only look to its TDs’ shameful contributions to last week’s Dáil debate on abortion for answers.

One by one they got to their feet and waxed lyrical about their sympathy for women who find themselves forced to travel abroad for an abortion, fulminated about the appalling failure of successive governments to do anything to resolve the legal quagmire that enmeshes this most controversial of issues, declared their unwavering support for legislation to finally give effect to the X Case judgment — and then promptly voted against a Bill that would do just that.

Now, let’s get a few things straight. It may come as a surprise to hear this but women in this country have had a constitutional right to an abortion, if their lives are at risk, for nearly 30 years, since the constitutional amendment was passed in 1983.

A High Court judge, in the X Case in 1992, said the failure of government to enact legislation to give legal effect to that right was “inexcusable”. Six years later another judge, in the C case, said she didn’t want the High Court to become a “licensing authority” for abortion — vulnerable women constantly forced to mount costly legal actions to determine their right to an abortion.

The response of government, in 2002, was to try to pass a constitutional amendment that would have removed the right of suicidal women to an abortion. They would rather have let them die. Thankfully, the Irish people rejected that amendment.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said the State’s failure to implement a framework to allow a woman unambiguously determine her right to a lawful abortion was a breach of her human rights.

The judgment is binding and while the court could not tell the State how to comply with its obligations under international law it did pointedly note that Ireland is almost alone in the Western world in not having enacted legislation to clearly define in statute the conditions governing access to abortion.

Remember, this is not abortion on demand. Or even abortion for health reasons — no matter how serious those health issues may be. The ECHR ruled that the State’s preferred practice of exporting desperately ill women for abortions was perfectly fine. The only thing this ruling relates to is access to an abortion when that abortion will save the life of the mother.

Still, the Government felt compelled to create yet another stumbling block before legislation could even be contemplated and long-fingered action by creating an expert group to discuss how best to bring itself into line with the court’s judgment.

The reasons for this are purely political and have nothing to do with women or their best interests. TDs are simply too craven to accept the implications of the ECHR ruling so they have outsourced the decision to a quango that will be cynically used to deflect criticism when it eventually reports back and recommends legislation.

Then , of course, there will be another endless delay before legislation is drafted and, if the Government manages to get around to it before the end of its term, it may be enacted.

Incredibly, last week was the first time in the history of the State that an abortion Bill was debated in the Dáil, but TDs like Michelle Mulherin still insisted that those supporting it were moving too fast — as if a 30-year delay wasn’t long enough.

The faux controversy surrounding the Bill, the only purpose of which was to grant women an abortion if one was required to save their life, was truly horrifying and reveals the naked contempt with which women are treated by the body politic.

Imagine if politicians had been debating a Bill that offered life-saving treatment for diabetics, or asthmatics or cystic fibrosis patients and it had been defeated in favour of waiting an indeterminate length of time for a report and subsequent identikit legislation? There would have been outrage, deservedly so, but because the debate concerned women, and their right to an abortion, politicians were too cowardly to act.

It really was nauseating but the behaviour of Labour TDs, only one of whom, rebel TD Patrick Nulty, supported the Bill, was particularly odious.

At least those TDs implacably opposed to abortion didn’t betray their conscience. They opposed this abortion Bill and they’ll oppose the next one. It was Labour TDs, with their mealy-mouthed words of support and their patronising extensions of thanks to the proposers of the Bill for raising the issue, who abandoned their principles when they casually torpedoed it.

Support for last week’s Bill, a highly restrictive piece of legislation that would have required the opinion of two doctors before an abortion could be performed to save a woman’s life, is a no-brainer. The real debate we need to have in this country is extending that right to women whose physical or mental health is seriously harmed by their pregnancy.

Currently, most Irish women cannot avail of a medical abortion, a pill taken over the course of a number of days, because of the logistics of travelling abroad. They have to opt for a day procedure, a surgical abortion, which, for safety reasons, cannot be performed as early as a medical abortion.

So, women are forced to wait for up to two months, while their pregnancy progresses, before they can leave the country for a much more invasive procedure. They are also less likely to access vital after-care services, once they return to Ireland, because of the stigma attached to their decision to travel for a procedure that, if performed here, could result in a conviction and a life-sentence.

THEN there are the women who discover, much later in their pregnancy, that the foetus has a genetic condition that means it will not survive the birth. They too are told, tough, to continue with the pregnancy and endure the birth. Why? Because a succession of male-dominated governments have presumed to tell women how they should react to that devastating news and feel perfectly content removing any vestige of personal autonomy from one of the most difficult decisions they will ever have to make.

This isn’t an area in which the State should be meddling at all. It is a personal medical decision that should be taken by women in conjunction with their partners and their doctors. Instead, women are reduced to the status of insentient incubator and instructed to grin and, literally, bear it by the self-dubbed pro-life lobby — whose concern for life doesn’t seem to extend past the moment of birth.

The 4,500 women who are unwilling or unable to comply with this diktat every year are shipped, out of sight and out of mind, beyond our puritanical shores — their silent sacrifice deemed an acceptable price to maintain the State’s illusory veneer of moral rectitude.

The abortion law on the statute books is 151 years old while the constitutional ban was introduced when a prescription was required to buy condoms and homosexuality and divorce were illegal. Ireland has changed. It’s time the law did too.