Let's hope State makes us proud over Savita case
Published 24/11/2012 | 05:00
SOME things do change, including Irish attitudes to what we used, coyly, to call the "social issues" of contraception, divorce and abortion.
Most of my readers are probably too young to remember 1979 or 1985. The first was the year when Charles Haughey as Health Minister brought in a measure to permit married couples to buy condoms on prescription. He called it "an Irish solution to an Irish problem", surely among the most disgraceful words ever uttered by an Irish politician.
The second was the year when Haughey as Fianna Fail leader opposed a liberal contraception measure proposed by his successor, Labour's Barry Desmond.
His great rival, Des O'Malley, had already lost the Fianna Fail whip. He did not vote for Mr Desmond's Bill, but abstained. Haughey had him expelled from the party.
In his Dail speech in the debate, Mr O'Malley said he was "standing by the Republic", and John Drennan in his sparkling recent book based on Dail debates takes its title from that speech.
Drennan takes his readers through a series of sensational events that illuminate Irish politics from 1948 to the present. He encourages them to contemplate the legacy. We are looking – some of us with anger, some in a mood close to despair – at part of that legacy now.
What has changed? Contraception is taken for granted. We have a divorce law. In the grim days that have followed the death of Savita Halappanavar it has become clear that most in the country, and most in the Dail, favour the legalisation of abortion.
But abortion is already lawful here. That was decided by the Supreme Court in the X-Case 20 years ago, and lately confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights.
Attempts to overturn the Supreme Court judgment by referendum have failed. We voted to assert women's rights, or rather everybody's rights, to freedom of information and movement. How many of us noticed the absurdity?
Most Irish politicians have consistently refused to accept a simple reality. Abortion is legal. Irish governments love to abdicate responsibility, to shift it on to some other body: a quango, for instance, or in the case of termination of pregnancy the medical profession.
DOCTORS have to act in accordance with guidelines that they consider inadequate. They permit a termination in the event of a real and substantial risk to a woman's life. Now we are told that a termination was refused although a woman's life was in imminent danger.
The Government must do two things: establish the facts in the case of Savita Halappanavar, and bring in legislation on abortion.
As to the first, I can't see how it can avoid setting up a public inquiry if the bereft Praveen Halappanavar continues to demand that. But the history of Irish public inquiries makes one flinch. We must not give ourselves years of hearings, lavish waste of money and unsatisfactory reports. Can we have an inquiry limited to months for the hearings and the publication of a report?
As to the second, the Government can no longer abdicate its duty. Perhaps ministers hoped to hide behind the report of the expert group on the subject, but reports this week suggest the group has put forward options, not proposals. If so, the ball is back in the Government's court – where it belongs.
The difficulties are enormous. For example, should different rules apply according to the term of a pregnancy, as in the famous US Supreme Court case Roe v Wade?
What of the exclusion of risk to a pregnant woman's health as grounds for an abortion? It is easy to imagine instances in which such a risk might not be temporary but permanent. No legislation will be adequate unless it gives the doctors certainty.
These are difficult and complex questions. They demand objective debate. I fear a debate of a different kind. Let us hope at least that it will not arouse the passions and divisions of the 1983 amendment campaign.
Defending the intervention of President Michael D Higgins, Joan Burton this week called his remarks "considerate, thoughtful, reflective and humane". If every participant in this debate displayed these qualities, it would not bring Savita back but it might make us proud of ourselves – for a change.