Thursday 30 October 2014

Forget Brooks, abortion laws make us a global laughing stock

Published 16/07/2014 | 02:30

Justice Minster Frances Fitzgerald
Justice Minster Frances Fitzgerald

THE government yesterday admitted our restrictive abortion regime is grossly discriminatory, but refused to countenance any change to the law.

Addressing the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, a government delegation was forced to explain our long-standing practice of exporting women for abortion.

According to the committee, our law is in breach of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Ireland has ratified and has therefore agreed to be bound by.

Under the ICCPR, said Ireland rapporteur Yuval Shany, there are a number of instances in which abortion must be an available option for women.

These include where the pregnancy poses a serious risk to women's health, when women become pregnant via rape or incest and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Asked to explain why Ireland persists in criminalising women who seek abortion under these circumstances, Mary Jackson, a principal officer at the Department of Health, insisted it was the "will of the people".

Really? Because I don't remember being asked to vote to expand the entitlement to abortion beyond a right to not be killed by one's pregnancy. While Ms Jackson attempted to argue that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act represents the will of the people in 2014, what it actually represents is the will of the people in 1983.

In every referendum in the intervening 31 years, the only option available to Irish people has been a further restriction of the law, an option that has at all times been defeated.

No government has ever asked the people if they think the current law, which dates from an era when divorce was illegal and homosexuality was outlawed, is too restrictive.

This point was raised by a number of committee members, who queried how the current law could be construed as the will of the people when consistent opinion polling suggested it was completely at variance with it.

Polls like the Behaviour and Attitudes poll in 2013, which found that 74pc of people believe abortion should be an option for rape victims and 80pc believe it should be available in instances of fatal foetal abnormality.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald conceded that opinion polls "indicate a changing view" regarding abortion – appearing to jettison the defence of the law as the will of the people.

Despite this, the Government, which is supposed to represent the views of the people who elected it, has no plans to hold a referendum to facilitate a change of the law.

It is happy to maintain the status quo position even though it recognises that the current law is grossly discriminatory.

This admission came when Ms Jackson agreed that only women who can afford to travel abroad can avail of abortion services and bluntly said: "We have no solution to that."

In effect, government policy amounts to enforced pregnancy for the poor while the rich retain autonomy over their bodies.

The State has "no solution" for the women who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and can't afford the €3,000 cost of a termination.

Well, that's not quite true.

It has just one solution. It is content to force them to carry the pregnancy to term, despite the deep distress and trauma that may entail.

It's a policy, said the UN committee chairman, which treats rape victims as "a vessel and nothing more".

Forced to have sex against their will by their attacker, they are then forced to endure the resultant pregnancy by the State.

It's a policy that compels desperate women, who can't afford to travel, to purchase abortion pills online on unregulated websites and administer them at home, endangering their lives.

In a real republic, one concerned with equality, this divergent treatment of women with money and those without would not be tolerated. We would not allow pious politicians to crow about their pro-life credentials when they are happy to ruin the lives of women who can't afford bodily autonomy.

We would not allow those who persist in defending this iniquitous regime, which offers choice to the rich and coerces the poor, to insist that their paramount concern is the protection of women.

Because this arrogant attitude implies that women need protection from themselves – from their own decisions about their own bodies.

It's an attitude that has been rejected by 150,000 women, and counting, since the 8th amendment was first inserted into the Constitution.

The notion of any woman being forced to terminate a pregnancy is abhorrent.

Equally, no one should be forced to continue a pregnancy against her will. Yesterday, the Irish state, unashamedly, admitted on an international stage that it is happy to endorse exactly that.

Yet, some politicians remain more embarrassed about the reputational damage caused by the cancellation of some Garth Brooks' concerts than our disgusting treatment of women.

Colette Browne

Irish Independent

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