It's time to stop outsourcing abortion
Letting women have terminations in the British embassy can keep all sides happy, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 28/04/2013 | 05:00
THERE is a solution to this abortion mess – a solution that follows logically from the makeshift compromises and political cowardice of the past 30 years. Presently, I will outline this rational and workable solution. It's consistent with our current abortion policies and it would work. Many people, however, will find it unpalatable.
It's important to recognise that there are two separate aspects to this problem. First, there's the demand for abortion. More than 4,000 Irish women each year go to the UK to terminate pregnancies. Plus, there are others who can't afford to make that journey. Some of them for financial reasons. Others are in practical or psychological circumstances that make that journey impossible.
This first aspect of the problem is deeply human, resulting in huge strain on thousands of women for whom abortion is an unsatisfactory but necessary course. It arouses strong, genuine, valid feelings, among both pro- and anti-choice advocates.
This real demand, this real need, is not going away.
Separately from all this, there is the political aspect. And it's important to acknowledge that from the beginning of this constitutional mess – with the original 'pro-life' constitutional amendment, in 1983 – the political manoeuvering has never been about responding to the issue of access to abortion. It has always been about responding to the needs of politicians.
In 1981, with an election pending, a young Fine Gaeler said she believed abortion might be permissible in certain limited circumstances. To discuss this in any rational way was to leave yourself open to a charge of promoting abortion.
Both Haughey and FitzGerald rushed to appease and neutralise the anti-choice voices. They did so by supporting the insertion of the anti-choice policy into the Constitution.
That foolish constitutional amendment was intended by some to bolster the spirit of those opposing demands for both contraception and divorce and to weaken what was called "the liberal agenda".
However, by bringing the issue into the Constitution, and thereby the legal arena, the foolish amendment eventually led to the introduction of a limited form of abortion.
Since then, politicians – with the tacit support of the bulk of the electorate – have tinkered with the issue, always doing just enough to protect their immediate electoral interests and always leaving the central issue a legal mess. The courts said the law needed clarity, but for 20 years the politicians shied away while the medics did their job with one eye on the law.
The Savita Halappanavar tragedy forced the Kenny/Gilmore Government to be seen to do something. Typically, the politicians have once again ignored the central issue – that thousands of Irish women each year seek out abortion facilities. And that others cannot go to the UK and so need such facilities here.
Those who cannot make the UK journey are left in peril – physical or psychological or both. Very occasionally, some – like Savita Halappanavar – are in extreme circumstances and cannot leave hospital and rush to the airport.
The politicians seek to do enough to make the law a bit less unclear while seeking to placate the anti-choice advocates by surrounding the process with a range of obstacles. The political response satisfies neither the pro- nor the anti-choice people.
So we get the farcical notion of three specialist doctors assessing a woman who might be suicidal and three more specialists assessing that assessment.
Inevitably, someone circulated a Twitter amendment: "Apparently if six doctors are tied three each on whether or not a woman is suicidal, James Reilly will host a quick-fire general-knowledge round."
None of this is medically necessary. It's an attempt to cover Reilly's ass and the asses of Enda and Eamon, our courageous leaders. They're worrying about how an opportunist Fianna Fail might use this to hurt Fine Gael and Labour.
Again, transient political interests are more important than a principled position on an issue that has affected at least 135,000 women since the foolish amendment was put into the Constitution in 1983.
The issue of access to abortion turns on who should have the right to choose. We have managed to achieve a qualified right to choose. Uniquely in the world, we've put into the Constitution two clauses – the right to travel and the right to information – that have no other purpose than to give constitutional protection to the abortion trail to the UK.
This was done with wide support. Even the anti-choice side was happy; even the Catholic hierarchy thought it acceptable. We gave the individual woman the right to choose, as long as she has the abortion outside of this jurisdiction.
What matters, in this absurd view of life, is that the abortion doesn't take place on Irish soil.
To achieve this, in 1992, we voted to alter the Constitution to protect the right to choose to have an abortion in the UK. All we're short of doing is supplying Ryanair tickets.
This is inconvenient, but it has worked for the majority of women seeking abortions for 20 years.
But this, of course, doesn't help those who have practical or psychological problems with travelling – and those, like Savita Halappanavar, for whom there isn't time to rush to the airport.
The pro-choice side wants the woman to have that right. It's her body. Hugely personal, intimate issues should – one imagines – be decided by the person affected by them. And that right should not depend on locating the abortion abroad.
The extreme anti-choice voices want a blanket ban on abortion. Having thought it through, or having weighed the issue against their religious convictions, they are opposed to abortion.
They're free to argue this. But many want instead to use the State to ensure that they will achieve through coercion what they cannot achieve through argument.
Other anti-choice people, including the politicians, want to pass the right to choose to some restrictive outfit – a medical or legal set-up, effectively a form of abortion court. A parade of women would plead their cases, the wise men and women of the abortion court would nod or shake their heads. You – yes. You, you and you – no. You there with the yellow top, we'll have a think over lunch and get back to you.
Think about it. If only there was a way in which Irish women could avail of the UK abortion services without having to actually travel to the UK. If only – and you see where I'm going with this – there was a tranche of land in the heart of our capital city which technically and legally constituted UK soil.
Now, the British embassy might baulk at fitting out an abortion clinic within its precincts. But we could help with the cost and do them a favour in some other sphere. We could then continue to outsource our abortion needs, even for women who can't travel. It would be just a slight adjustment to what we already do.
Unpalatable? Of course. Too blatant.
Anti-abortion voices are, on the whole, sincere. But their insistence on controlling the intimate lives of others has led to hypocrisy and, worse, to danger in the maternity ward. It's time to stop the outsourcing.
We wouldn't dare limit freedom of speech to those who say only what we want to hear. We continue to deny freedom of choice to women who might choose a course that some among us abhor.