'Women come before ideology and must be protected primarily'
Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00
The lives of our daughters, wives, partners and friends must be given a right of priority, Deputy Charlie Flanagan tells Carol Hunt
Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution reads: The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
In the X case of 1992, then chief justice Thomas Finlay stated ". . . if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible, having regard to the true interpretation of Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution."
Supreme Court judge Niall McCarthy said in 1992: "The failure of the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable."
It can be argued that the average Irish TD is asked to serve four masters: the party whip, the constituency that elected him or her, the nation as a whole, and their own conscience. In many cases we know that it is not always their conscience which triumphs. In the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar we would hope that the jostling and point-scoring that we see so often in politics be replaced with a sombre maturity, a new understanding that there are some issues which need to be above politics, above ideologies – the lives of young mothers being one of them.
Last week I spoke to Deputy Charlie Flanagan, chairperson of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and TD for the constituency of Laois/Offaly for many years. The constituency, Flanagan tells me, has seen many changes over the years. What used to be a largely rural community has now expanded to become a good barometer of recent change in Ireland.
When we spoke, his distress at the human tragedy which occurred this week was palpable and almost personal: as a legislator, a husband, a father and, it seemed, as an empathetic human being with a working conscience. He is adamant that: "This debate must not be left to the extremists."
"I really do feel for the family of Savita. I read comments attributed to Praveen, as a husband and a partner," says Flanagan.
"And I mean, I ask myself, what would I do in such circumstances? How would I wish matters might proceed in such circumstances? And I say that as a public representative, as a father of two daughters and as a husband."
He pauses and thinks before adding.
"And I just think that women's lives come before any ideology and must be protected primarily."
Later in our conversation, Flanagan reiterates this position, adding: "I ask myself the question as a father, what would I have done? You know, what would I want done if my daughters were in a similar position? And I would ask men to reflect on that as well."
And what would you do? I ask.
"I would certainly put the life of my daughters in a position of priority."
As opposed to equal?
"In a position of priority."
Most importantly, Flanagan doesn't believe that "we should be looking at this problem from a pro- or anti-abortion point of view" (though he is adamant that he is very much anti- "abortion on demand" and has always seen himself as "pro-life") but says, and repeats again to me later, that: "As a public representative I will be reminding people of the judgement of Niall McCarthy in the X Case of 20 years ago, the comments of both Niall McCarthy and Chief Justice Tom Finlay."
Does this mean Deputy Flanagan is in favour of legislation?
"Until we see the report of the expert committee I can't really comment on that, but I think it's fair to say that there will be a number of options, and I don't believe the status quo is one of them. Nor do I believe that referring the matter back to the people by way of referendum is an option.
"We live in a representative democracy and I am a member of the national assembly and I believe it's an issue that can be dealt with by the Dail. Now, it may well be that the current grey area can be dealt with by way of regulation."
What do you mean by regulation? I ask.
"That there would be a regulatory framework within which the
protection of women can be dealt with."
Would that not need legislation?
Flanagan is cautious: "It might not necessarily need legislation. I'll be interested to see what the report says on that particular issue – there will be a menu of options.
"Let's wait and see what those options are. But it would appear to me that perhaps the most likely options will be legislation or regulation. But what we need is complete clarity."
What do you mean by clarity? I ask.
"There must be clear direction given to medical practitioners. The law shouldn't necessarily be abstract, cold, logical – every law has human consequences. And I feel that we have to look at the human consequences.
"I'm very much in favour of the protection of women, and the protection of women is at stake here. There are grey areas. It has been said by lawyers and it has been said more acutely by obstetricians. And grey areas actually cost lives and that's why greater clarity is needed so that the grey areas are no longer in evidence . . . and I have a duty as a public representative to give clarity, so whether that clarity is going to be by legislation or by regulation is an important issue."
Flanagan had earlier expressed his frustration with inquiries that tend to end up going nowhere, saying: "We have to wait for inquiries. But I've seen a lot of inquiries, and I've seen a lot of health-related inquiries that involve too many people doing parallel inquiries with different terms of reference that ultimately run into the sand.
"So while I'm awaiting the result of this particular inquiry, I believe that there should be a strict timeframe.
"I understand the terms of reference are currently being formulated. But to me, on the face of it, a three-month period is a long period."
He does add: "I don't believe that it should take three months but if there are medical people who would convince me otherwise . . . I'm open to being convinced."
I ask about possible opposition to changing the status quo.
"I think that if people reflect on the past week's events, if people see the trauma and suffering of Praveen for his wife, of the circumstances surrounding her early death, I think people will stand up and say that women's lives must be protected."
What about exceptional cases making bad laws?
"It is an exceptional case, but we need to ensure that cases like this don't occur again. It feeds back into what I said about the enquiry not having an undetermined length of time within which it should report.
"What we need to ensure is that we have a framework of law and medical practice that ensures that no woman's life is ever put in danger. In short, doctors need clear guidance to protect women."