Friday 30 September 2016

Áras wants to clarify abortion comments - but Sabina's position was clear

First Lady must have known remarks would generate controversy

Laura Larkin

Published 12/05/2016 | 02:30

The Áras said there would be no further comment on the matter when asked if Mrs Higgins was looking to roll back on her comments (Picture: Maxwells Dublin)
The Áras said there would be no further comment on the matter when asked if Mrs Higgins was looking to roll back on her comments (Picture: Maxwells Dublin)

The Áras has moved to clarify somewhat the First Lady's comments regarding abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, revealed in the Irish Independent.

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In a statement to the 'Pat Kenny Show' following an on-air debate on the Eighth Amendment, the President's head of communications asked that Mr Kenny "clarify that Sabina spoke in the context of a general audience discussion at the student midwives debate 2016 organised by NBMI voicing her support for the work of Ireland's midwives and supporting points made by various speakers during the debate and that she referred to fatal foetal abnormality".

The debate between the Iona Institute's Maria Steen and Amnesty Ireland's Colm O'Gorman on the Newstalk show saw both weigh in on whether the remarks of Sabina Higgins were appropriate given her position as the spouse of Uachtarán na hÉireann.

For Ms Steen it was a question of judgement and she called for an apology from Mrs Higgins. On the other side Mr O'Gorman viewed her remarks as those made by an individual which were in keeping with a position on the topic that was known before her husband took office.

The Áras said there would be no further comment on the matter when asked if Mrs Higgins was looking to roll back on her comments.

The statement, Hans Zomer their head of communications said, was simply to clarify that Mrs Higgins was referring to fatal foetal abnormality when she spoke about her view that it's an "outrage" against women to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term in the case of "foetal abnormality".

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with Dr Brian McMahon, Chairman of the Abbey Theatre, on the opening night of Othello, at the Abbey last night (Picture: Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography)
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with Dr Brian McMahon, Chairman of the Abbey Theatre, on the opening night of Othello, at the Abbey last night (Picture: Chris Bellew/ Fennell Photography)

Sitting in the audience during the NBMI debate, it was clear, despite her stumbling over the phrase, that it was cases of fatal foetal abnormality which Mrs Higgins was referring to.

It was also clear that, even though she had diplomatically refused to come down on either side of the motion that had been competently debated by the students, she was coming down on one side in the wider debate around abortion in these specific cases.

The issue being debated by students was if Ireland's maternity care matches the vision set out in the 1916 proclamation and honours the commitment made to women and children in the fourth paragraph.

The speakers were well-informed and their arguments well-researched. All had statistics to back them up, but there were human stories drawn upon.

Mrs Higgins was not billed to speak and there were to be no media interviews or soundbites given on the day. She was only in Trinity College's nursing and midwifery school that day to listen to those who had been selected to debate.

When she was handed the microphone during the audience discussion it was quickly apparent that she had no speech or notes prepared, but was well-versed in the topics she chose to mention. These were the importance of midwives in the overall delivery of high quality maternity care; the fact that not all of our maternity hospitals are baby-friendly; the need for Ireland to promote breastfeeding; and, finally, abortion in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

"There has to be the choice that you know that [fatal] foetal abnormality that the person or persons should be made carry you know… these are really outrages against women and outrages against the world and nature," she said.

She strayed into the topic no doubt - Mrs Higgins certainly didn't appear to be someone who had taken the mic with a plan to voice her opinion on one of the most divisive subjects in Irish society. That could be heard in her voice and her hesitation as she struggled to land on the right words. Nevertheless, she did so and the fallout has remained all week.

The First Lady was welcomed to the debate as a key supporter for the profession of midwifery, and her support for the work of Irish midwives was very apparent. Her jokes about doctors that only showed up briefly were met with laughter, and her rousing reflection that we had "come so far" in our Republic was met with applause.

Towards the end of her speech she said "there is so much to go into" and there was. There was many aspects of Ireland's maternity care that were discussed by various speakers during the debate, such as access to maternity care for rural women; the low staff-to-patient ratios on maternity wards; and the satisfaction rates of women who have had babies in Irish hospitals. Mrs Higgins didn't pick up on those in her four-minute speech, however.

Her choice to refer to abortion - even as briefly as she did - was enough to spur a national conversation. Which, given her position, she must have known it would.

Irish Independent

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