News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: This Government must be the one to face facts

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

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Our leaders for the last 20 years have refused to deal with the abortion issue, but the time for clarification is now, writes

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The submission by the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to the Oireachtas All-Party Commission on the Constitution is clear: "There is a fundamental difference between abortion carried out with the intention of taking the life of the baby ... and the unavoidable death of the baby resulting from essential treatment to protect the life of the mother." That's why, in the institute's Clinical Practice Guide on the management of early pregnancy miscarriage, it warns: "Women are sensitive about references to pregnancy loss. As their loss is not out of choice, use of words like 'abortion' can be sometimes offensive at a vulnerable time. Hence, discussion or documentation of management of early pregnancy loss should be worded appropriately."

There was no such sensitivity shown at the Irish Times last week in its reporting on the death of 31- year-old Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital after contracting septicemia following a miscarriage. Instead the paper opted to present what had happened as a simple morality tale of what can happen when a woman is denied an "abortion". Beyond the headlines there was more nuance about the range of treatments which, in practice, are offered to women in Ireland in similar circumstances, but there was no doubt that the pitch being presented by the Irish Times was one of the dangers of failing over a 20-year period to legislate for abortion in light of the X Case.

The debate for the rest of the week was coloured entirely by the Irish Times's decision to reduce a complex personal tragedy, about which few facts were still known, to a rallying call for a new abortion law. And it wasn't only in Ireland. The world's media, having picked up on the tragedy, echoed the same line, deaf to the testimony of doctors that what was being called for in this case was not an abortion but a routine clinical procedure carried out on thousands of women in Ireland, and ignoring entirely the position of pro-life campaigners who made it clear that they had no moral or legal objection to Savita's life taking precedence in these circumstances.

The Irish Times rushed to fill the vacuum left by an absence of facts with a single word, "abortion", which was then tossed into the debate like a hand grenade into a small crowded room. In doing so, they not only sent out a message to the world that Ireland is some benighted, backward, bigoted land where religious dogma takes precedence over young women's lives. At home they also opened the door to a vitriolic assault on pro-lifers who were suddenly being blamed for a chain of events which none of them had supported or would ever support.

There was an air of palpable nastiness in the air; the sense that a coiled spring of anger and bitterness which had been building since Clare Daly's private member's bill to deal with abortion was defeated in the Dail had suddenly found an outlet and could be unleashed. Pro-choice groups were now able to portray anyone who did not want to immediately legislate for more liberal abortion laws as a monster who was responsible for the death of an innocent young woman.

There was no doubt that they were upset and outraged by what had happened, but no side has a monopoly on compassion. This wasn't a case of good vs evil, the compassionate vs the heartless, but pro-choice campaigners seemed to feel that they had a monopoly on human sympathy. They took total ownership of the story, refusing to allow anyone to even express their own sense of horror and sadness at a woman's death unless they signed up wholesale to the pro-choice manifesto.

Everyone who dared put their head above the parapet was raked with rhetorical machine gun fire. Caroline Simons, solicitor for the pro-life movement, was measured and humane on Tonight With Vincent Browne, but her reasonableness seemed to annoy the critics more.

Senator Ronan Mullen received even more abuse when he appeared on Pat Kenny's radio show. Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin, on the same programme the next day, didn't stand a chance, having previously made an ill-advised comment about "fornication" in an unrelated context.

Anyone who tried to present any sort of argument for limiting abortion was tarred as a hardhearted dinosaur, a defender of the abstract rights of foetuses over the life of living, breathing, suffering women.

What was worse, a Catholic dinosaur, though a concern for the rights of the unborn crosses all boundaries of faith, has survived the tidal wave of disillusionment which engulfed the Catholic Church in recent years, and is indeed often shared by many people who have no religious beliefs at all. The UK is far from being a Catholic country, and opinion polls there show a clear majority in favour of lowering the current time limits on abortion. Interestingly, it is women who are also most firmly pro-life, giving the lie to the related claim by pro-choice campaigners that this is all some sinister patriarchal conspiracy against women. Many men don't seem that bothered about abortion at all.

Even pointing out that Ireland remains one of the safest places in the world to have a baby was being dismissed last week as pro-life propaganda, though in truth nothing could or should matter more. Clearly it was not a safe place for Savita to have a baby, and the reasons for that must be disclosed as urgently as possible. But the Irish Times refused to wait, preferring instead to ignite an ideological holy war by yoking Savita's tragedy onto that emotive and deliberately provocative word "abortion".

If there is to be a new debate on abortion, there will certainly be no group more willing to have it than the pro-life lobby; but it should be acknowledged that it will be a separate debate, informed by whatever facts ultimately emerge about Savita Halappanavar's awful death, but ranging wider. Pro-choice campaigners should be aware that such a debate will not go entirely their own way. The issues are complex, and there's still plenty of confusion about what they actually want – what time limits they would set on abortion, the reasons which would be allowable to access the service, and so on. They want abortion legislated for in Ireland, but legislation is about specifics, and that's where it gets complicated; that's where the contradictions of their own position are exposed.

The pro-life movement, in its turn, needs to reflect on the outpouring of public shame and sorrow over Savita's death. It quickly turned nasty – a search for scapegoats rather than answers – but its origin was genuine, and expressed an anguish beyond the easy definitions of pro-life and pro-choice about the lack of closure which still exists in Ireland about the medical treatment of mothers and babies.

Somehow that collective compassion has to be harnessed to the cause of clarity, because the current

nod-and-a- wink approach to difficulties in pregnancy is clearly unsatisfactory. Clare Daly is right about that, if nothing else. It is plainly absurd that government after government has refused to face the issue of abortion. How that can be done is the next problem.

Irish governments are weak in character even when they are strong in numbers. A week after piously committing themselves to the will of the people in the children's referendum, this one's dearest wish on abortion is plainly that the people would just shut up about it.

Sunday Independent

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