Saturday 27 August 2016

Shane Coleman: Savita's tragic death will change our political landscape forever

Published 15/11/2012 | 07:00

HARD cases, any lawyer will tell you, make bad law. Yet the only time we seem willing to deal with the abortion issue in Ireland is when such a hard case arises.

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We've had the 'X' and 'C' cases and the huge political fallout those heart-breaking stories generated. It seems likely that the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar will also have a similar effect on the abortion debate.

Why does it take such high-profile, but largely exceptional, examples to propel abortion back to the forefront of public debate? Every day, 11 Irish women travel to the UK for an abortion but we as a country are hugely reluctant to deal with this fact, preferring a uniquely Irish solution to an Irish problem.

The political parties are routinely accused to fudging this issue and in recent years there is no question that they have done so – six successive governments have failed to legislate or regulate for the 'X' case. But it is too easy to blame politicians. They take their guidance from the voters and, up to yesterday, there was little evidence that abortion was a major issue for the electorate.

It's actually difficult to know exactly where public opinion stands on abortion. But it would appear there is a sizeable – and arguably, growing – chunk of the population that is pro-choice. Another section of the electorate is strongly pro-life.

And then there is another large section – maybe even the biggest group – that is somewhere in the middle. Many of that last group don't want abortion services provided in this country but are open to the provision of terminations in exceptional circumstances, such as rape or incest.

Probably the only things on which the vast, vast majority of the population are absolutely agreed are that a termination is acceptable when the life of the mother is in danger and/or when it is clear that the pregnancy isn't viable.

It's important to stress that, not knowing the full story of what happened in University Hospital Galway, we should be slow to draw conclusions.

However, obstetricians said yesterday that, although there may not be legislation to provide for the 'X' case, because of that Supreme Court ruling, the law as it stands is quite clear. It is legally permissible to – as one very senior obstetrician put it to the Irish Independent – "expedite the end of the pregnancy" in such cases.

He also said that this does happen in Irish hospitals every year. But whatever the reason – and we will have to await the conclusion of the various inquiries to find out – there is little doubt that Savita's death has utterly changed the political landscape.

Before now, the Labour Party was committed to legislating for the 'X' case but a majority of the Fine Gael parliamentary party was opposed to doing so – believing it would ultimately result in more widespread availability of abortion.

At a parliamentary party meeting in July, 15 TDs, including John O'Mahony, Regina Doherty and John Deasy, spoke out strongly on the issue. Two TDs – Simon Harris and James Bannon – reportedly said they would vote against any such law in the Dail.

The divisions between Fine Gael and Labour haven't gone away – many FG TDs will be sticking to their position. But some deputies admitted privately yesterday that if it emerged that uncertainty in relation to the law on terminations was a factor in the Galway case, then it would change things dramatically.

Much will depend on what the expert group on abortion finds. It gave its report to the Health Minister on Tuesday. There have previously been suggestions that they might recommend opting for ministerial regulation rather than legislation and the setting up of a panel of medical experts to consider applications for abortions in extremely limited circumstances.

Sadly, nothing can bring back Savita. But the fallout from her tragic death may mean that, after 30 years, five referendums, a European Court of Human Rights ruling and a number of high-profile cases, the State may finally have to address the abortion issue.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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