Analysis

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Dearbhail McDonald: Sickened at 20-year wait for law

Dearbhail McDonald

Published 15/11/2012|05:00

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I AM a 35-year-old woman living in Ireland, the celebrated "Catholic country" basking in global praise for its elevation, this week, to the UN Human Rights Council.

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Next January, Ireland, that "fearless champion", will strut its stuff on the international stage playing an active role in promotion of human rights.

Maybe Savita Halappanavar should be the first item on the council's agenda.

Like many women in Ireland, I woke up yesterday to the shocking news that Savita, whose 17-week-old pregnancy was doomed, died after her medically supervised miscarriage went wrong.

I do not know the full circumstances leading up to her death. But we know that in her final days, Savita (31) asked those treating her – as she endured her harrowing miscarriage – to induce her in order to accelerate and bring to an end her physical and mental agony.

Savita had accepted that her pregnancy was hopeless.

According to her husband, she was told that this Ireland is "a Catholic country", – and as long as there was a foetal heartbeat there was nothing they could do.

It's hard to explain the depth of anger and sorrow Savita's death has ignited in me – a visceral rage that has reduced me, and many of my friends, to tears of exasperation and despair.

All of us thinking: that could have been me.

All of us thinking: why haven't we sorted out this mess? For 20 years, successive governments have refused to legislate in the wake of the infamous X case involving a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant as the result of rape.

The late Supreme Court Judge Niall McCarthy berated politicians over their "inexcusable failure" to introduce appropriate laws with regard to abortion.

The Supreme Court also castigated the State, insisting it was not the job of judges to programme society.

It is not.

In the absence of a law, the Supreme Court came up with a convoluted formula which says that abortion is permissible here if it's established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life – as distinct from the health – of the mother which can be avoided only by the termination of pregnancy.

It's not a perfect formula, but its the only thing we've got and its the law – one that sought to distinguish between life-saving terminations and so-called social ones.

But in the 20 years since the X case, no government – not one – has given legal effect to the existing Constitutional right to abortion.

I am the same age as X, and I wonder how she must have felt watching the anonymous alphabet soup of women who followed her into the courts in Ireland and elsewhere, seeking clarity of the law.

I travelled to Strasbourg two years ago, to the European Court of Human Rights to hear the A,B, C cases.

And I listened with amusement, then horror, as Ireland's Government – through its legal representation – told a full chamber of judges that in rare cases when there was a risk to a mother's life there was "a very clear and bright blue line" provided by Irish law that was neither difficult to understand nor apply.

The European Court put a red line through that bright blue line fiction, criticising the Government for leaving our courts with a lack of clear information regarding lawful abortions.

Regardless of where we each stand on this perennially divisive issue, the need for a compassionate and clear legal infrastructure is overwhelming.

For God's sake, it's what this Catholic country needs.

Irish Independent

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