independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

At last, we can step out of the abortion time machine

FIRST, the good news. We woke up this morning to discover neither plague, nor famine, nor earthquake, was visited upon Ireland overnight as a sign of celestial displeasure.

This proves those claiming to have a hotline to God, who insist they can channel the Divinity's views, were chancing their arms all along. But most people knew that anyway.

Second, the bad news. Wait, there is no bad news. In the wee small hours of this morning, abortion legislation has been tackled by the Dail. The circumstances are limited and strictly controlled, but the deed is done. A start has been made.

It was a marathon parliamentary session, in keeping with the long haul taken to reach this point – 30 years, five referendums, seven governments. But the finishing line is in sight.

This means we woke up today to an Ireland where the safety of pregnant women is expected to be enshrined in law. An Ireland where clarity can be afforded to medics once expected to treat women in the minefield of legal limbo.

An Ireland where the Catholic Church no longer controls the Government. And an Ireland with the maturity to behave as a secular state.

In this instance, at least, our rulers are considering the welfare of all citizens rather than bowing to the demands of a powerful lobby group.

Those lobbyists' weapons of choice – excommunication and the threat of hellfire – are being exposed as the smoke and mirrors of an unrepresentative organisation that has forfeited its once dominant position.

Late last night, TDs en masse were set to face up to their duty. There were a number of exceptions, of course, but that was to be expected. What matters is that the majority of deputies in the 31st Dail were ready to do the right thing by the Irish people.

Today is a good day for democracy.

The passing of the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Bill will not amount to an open-door abortion policy, as pro-lifers predict. A woman cannot have an abortion if she believes it is in her best interests, for example. However, the principle that abortion provision can be the subject of legislation is now established.

It will be a significant victory, and Enda Kenny has shown skill and perseverance in steering it through.

Even so, there is a sense of the calm before yet another storm, because this law will be challenged and will end up in the Supreme Court. Still, I believe it will remain on the statute books and will be augmented over time.

In the final analysis, the debate didn't hinge on potentially conflicting rights – the unborn's right to life versus the individual's right to personal autonomy. Park the battle of words, set aside the emotion, and here's what prevailed: cross-party, cross-gender acceptance that pregnant women needed access to life-saving terminations, and doctors needed legal certainty about the circumstances when they could take place.

Those were the clinchers – difficult arguments to discount. Some did reject them, of course. But the number of dissenters was relatively few, both inside and outside the Oireachtas, despite their vocal abilities.

I have no doubt TDs on both sides of the divide are exhausted by the conflict. Few bills have stoked as much discussion – not just in the Dail chamber but in the country.

As a nation, we have been slow to introduce this necessary law. It would have had to be brought in earlier if the safety valve of Britain on Ireland's doorstep was not available.

Our nearest neighbour's proximity has been at once a blessing and a disadvantage – it has offered a remedy to desperate women and couples, but as a society we would have been obliged to address the issue sooner if the escape hatch were less conveniently situated. Even then, the cost of travelling overseas is more than some can easily afford.

Statistics from Britain's Department of Health show 4,149 Irish women had abortions there in 2011. That's only the number of women supplying Irish addresses – the true figures must be higher. Recognition of this reality – our outsourced abortions – may help to explain why polls consistently show majority public support for a more liberal abortion environment in Ireland.

Both supporters and opponents of this bill take issue with its contents, however. The legislation ignores fatal foetal abnormality and the dilemma of women or girls impregnated by rape or incest, so it will need amending in future. However, the future can take care of itself for now.

Looking back on a rancorous nine months since Savita Halappanavar's death, we can see how Ireland divided along religious versus secular lines. Even up to the eleventh hour, the Catholic hierarchy was active in the pro-life camp.

No doubt, it hoped to influence waverers. But this was a war the hierarchy could not win. The best it could achieve was embarrassment for the Government, although the whip system gave politicians some protection from pulpit coercion.

Yesterday, Armagh's coadjutor Archbishop Eamon Martin said TDs voting for the legislation were acting "in co-operation with evil". A bullying interpretation, but in line with tradition from the bishops and archbishops.

Fortunately, TDs are less easy to intimidate than young boys asked to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from telling anyone – even their parents – about evil at the hands of paedophile priests.

As for this cautious law being enacted: if both liberals and conservatives take issue with legislation it shows a middle course is being followed.

Not Sodom and Gomorrah after all.

Meanwhile, the ghost of the 1980s, when the abortion debate was ignited amid rancour and social division, has been laid to rest at last. These past months have resembled an Eighties re-run.

But we can step out of the time machine now.

It's back to the present again.

Irish Independent

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