Friday 28 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: A woman is dead. Never again, please

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

Amid the anger and shock, there are already voices urging cowardice, writes Gene Kerrigan

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THERE was an eerie feeling on Molesworth Street, last Wednesday, at a few minutes to 6pm. People moved towards the Leinster House end of the street, in greater numbers than the usual homeward trekkers – moving purposefully, but in ones and twos. No marching, no chants, no banners. Just people taking some time out to gather at the national parliament and make a quiet, despairing statement of political anger. The patchy sound system was open to anyone who wanted to speak.

Word had gone out on Twitter, but there was little organisation, hardly any preparation. It was a spontaneous eruption of rage over the death of Savita Halappanavar. It might have attracted only a few dozen. Instead, well over 1,000 people applauded speeches that ranged from the eloquent to the incensed.

The gardai were unprepared for the crowds. RTE was unprepared. We needed this scandal ventilated, but normal programmes continued. The rest of us twitched with fury – knowing this was the dreaded outcome we had long hoped wouldn't happen.

The anger outside the Dail echoed the shocked response throughout the country. It could have been any woman of child-bearing age. It can happen again tomorrow. The forces that created the buggered-up law are weakened, but they survive.

This tragedy grew out of the crack in society that has existed since the Sixties. From Lemass onward, it was accepted that a nation of cowed citizens could not thrive in the modern world. An inward-looking, isolated country had to connect with the rest of the world, economically and culturally, if it was to survive within modern capitalism.

Yet, as late as 1970 the stagnancy was such that it remained a mortal sin for a Catholic to "frequent non-Catholic schools or neutral schools or schools that are open also to non-Catholics".

Change came. Education was modernised, thousands of perfectly respectable books were taken off the banned list. In 1972, the Catholic Church agreed to have its "special position" removed from the Constitution. Television encouraged debate. Ideas of personal and sexual liberation were discussed. Women were allowed to sit on juries, they no longer had to quit the civil service when they married. Pubs that banned women from the bar began to accept lucrative orders for gin and slimlines. Equal pay was discussed, as were rape, domestic violence, contraception and divorce.

Catholic absolutism was on shaky ground. In 1966 there were 1,409 vocations to the priesthood and religious orders. By 1974 the figure was down to 547. Inevitably, a rearguard action was fought by the upholders of what were called "traditional values". Already, Ireland was awash with platoons of the army of resistance: the Council of Social Concern, the League of Decency, the Christian Political Action Movement, the Catholic Doctors Guild, the Catholic Nurses Guild. In 1979, Pope John Paul II came here and his popularity boosted the traditionalists.

On one level, the Knights of Columbanus and Opus Dei influenced profession-als, civil servants and politicians. At another, the Society for the Protection of Children was allowed to bring its garish anti-abortion movie and slides into about 250 schools.

In 1977, some Fine Gael activists believed that at least a quarter of the party's National Executive were Knights.

Following a conference in Dublin (of the Doctors Who Respect Human Life), various individuals came up with the idea of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign was born.

Already, abortion was illegal, no one but a handful of feminists had publicly mentioned it. Women had to go to England for abortions, in their thousands, taking the pressure off the state. Eventually, the abortion trail to England would be given constitutional protection, by referendum, backed by the bishops.

Why a constitutional amendment on abortion? It would give the traditionalists an easy victory. It was a move that few politicians dared oppose. It would secure traditionalism into the distant future.

More than that, it would push back against contraception, divorce and secularism. In the words of one PLAC founder, Ireland would "once again become a beacon", and "turn the tide in the western world". Oliver Flanagan, former Fine Gael Minister for Defence, said the amendment would ensure that the "liberal intellectuals will be silenced".

In April 1981, frightened politicians, Haughey and FitzGerald, met the new outfit within three days and immediately agreed to sponsor an amendment. Thus was born the constitutional ban on abortion – which in fact opened the door to abortion. From 1992, and the X Case in the Supreme Court, the traditionalists have been fighting to limit the terms under which abortion is allowed. The politicians still fear them – and that fear led them to refuse to clarify the law.

When Savita Halappanavar entered Galway University Hospital she was surrounded by modern equipment, dedicated staff and 20 years of political cowardice.

Her miscarrying baby was doomed. But while its heart was beating the law says it must be given equal status with Savita. We cannot yet know what exactly happened through those days, and we cannot know, let alone judge, the actions of any particular doctor or nurse – nor their collective actions.

Outsiders have second-guessed the medics, on limited information. What we know was that the medics were subject to the law, and the courts have demanded the law be clarified by the politicians – and the politicians have refused to do so, for two decades. Medics must work it out for themselves, in the midst of a medical crisis. The woman has no say.

The refusal of the politicians to clarify the law is explicit. "I think that this issue is not of priority for government now," Enda Kenny told Time magazine, for his triumphant cover story in September. That meant he would never, through this Government's time in office, deal with the issue. Fianna Fail felt the same.

Politicians find abortion too scary. For 20 years they let it hang, perhaps believing the odds were against a high-profile death. They were gambling with the lives of others.

The original proposed wording to the Constitutional amendment was: "The State recognises the absolute right to life of every unborn child from conception" – it was feminists and politicians who insisted that the life of the mother must count.

But the political establishment was satisfied with that precarious balance. And they got away with it for decades.

The amendment failed to save the Catholic Church. Last year 22 men were studying for the priesthood. This year, the figure is 12. The decline of the church was brought about not by militant secularism but by the conduct of its own.

But the era of aggressive traditionalism, the effort to make Ireland a Catholic beacon that would turn the tide in Europe, left a legacy of mangled law. A law that hangs over medics who make life and death decisions.

A woman is dead. The law is discredited, any woman who may become pregnant is left to worry about what might or might not happen. If that isn't enough, for those concerned only with the bottom line, the failure to legislate has destroyed years of marketing Ireland as a modern state.

Voices already urge more cowardice. Leave it be, they say. What's the hurry. Things are fine.

Never again, say the rest of us. And damn any politician who votes to take a Christmas holiday while this issue remains unresolved.

Sunday Independent

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