Friday 30 September 2016

Why Kenny and Martin need to stand up and show courage on the abortion issue

Published 03/12/2015 | 02:30

'[Enda] Kenny's primary motivation is evidently to defuse an internal party row, given that the 2013 Protection of Life and Pregnancy bill cost his party seven parliamentary seats'
'[Enda] Kenny's primary motivation is evidently to defuse an internal party row, given that the 2013 Protection of Life and Pregnancy bill cost his party seven parliamentary seats'

The words "I'm pregnant" feature amongst the happiest, most intimate moments within a life partnership - affirming parenthood as the ultimate expression of a couple's mutual love.

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My wife always took responsibility for controlling family-planning in our relationship. I've never had to face the trauma of crisis pregnancy. I won't pretend I fully understand the circumstances of the 3,735 women who had their pregnancies terminated in the UK in 2014. Article 40.3.3 doesn't stop Irish abortions; it merely affords us a chance to export our problems.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was a profound mistake. Throughout my 21 years in Dáil Éireann, I never experienced such unpleasant divisiveness as during that misguided referendum campaign. I voted No. My Wexford constituency and the country overwhelmingly bought into pro-life/SPUC propaganda that cemented into concrete parliament's inability to legislate for compassionate cases due to fatal foetal abnormalities or for the horrendous crimes of rape and incest.

The Attorney General advises that only a repeal of this amendment can allow clinicians to fully protect the 'health' of expectant mothers and resolve the heart-breaking problems of anencephaly.

The consequences of prohibiting terminations (except where a mother's life is at perilous risk) are shameful. The Miss Y case wouldn't have happened if the young woman wasn't a migrant, neither able to travel nor afford to pay for a British termination. Her suicide attempts, after rape by the man who killed her family, wasn't sufficient to release her from the obligation to complete her pregnancy through Caesarean section.

Last Christmas, uncertainty caused by the Eighth Amendment - which might criminalise doctors (and leave them facing 14 years in prison) - forced the High Court into determining whether life-support could be switched off for a brain-dead pregnant woman. The judiciary had to determine whether her father had the right of a dignified end to his daughter's life.

She had incurable head/brain injuries, yet seven doctors and multiple lawyers had to prove that the foetus had no viable survival prospects, before her family's wishes could be implemented. Not exactly a Christian scenario.

These issues cannot be evaded any longer by political leaders. They have repeatedly deferred facing another divisive referendum campaign.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny vowed it wouldn't be contemplated in the lifetime of this Dáil; Micheal Martin pledged "not to go there" by refusing to even engage on the issue. These leaders represent the majority views of over 65-year-olds, public opinion of 30 years ago. Younger voters can confront emotional human dilemmas more straightforwardly. Opinion polls indicate 81pc favour a further referendum; 63pc favour legalising a restrictive abortion regime here.

The Taoiseach's plan for a Citizens' Convention to be set up within six months of the forming of the next government is an abdication of authority.

Trying to outsource leadership to some token group is pathetic. Mr Kenny's primary motivation is evidently to defuse an internal party row, given that the 2013 Protection of Life and Pregnancy bill cost his party seven parliamentary seats. At all costs, he wants his to prepare his troops to face in both directions of the argument. His strategy will be to minimise the flack from the polarised extremes of both sides.

We need to know the terms of reference for an expert group to define the circumstances of approved abortion. Not if; but who, how, where and when, and in the context of significant referendum reform to define replacement laws on such matters as: threshold deadlines within pregnancy for carrying out terminations; how to establish sexual crimes of rape or incest; satisfying the mother's health risks criteria; defining expeditiously suicidal tendencies; and facilitating conscientious objections of health practitioners.

Clarifying the situation can only serve to enhance the prospects of electorate majority approval.

This week's Northern Ireland High Court ruling provides a modernising abortion law context on the island. The UN Human Rights Committee states that we're still in breach of international human rights law, despite the 2013 Act. By denying women access to abortion in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormalities, and where there's maternal health risks Ireland isn't in compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We've been repeatedly reprimanded for our treatment of women, yet official Ireland blithely carries on regardless.

A free vote amongst TDs and senators should be normal practice on this and all genuine issues of conscience. How embarrassing to hear some backbenchers rebuke Mr Kenny for signalling an end to the whip and consequent expulsion.

They bleat about the benefits of protection of hiding under the skirt of a compulsory party line in order to avoid telling voters their actual opinions about legalising abortion. Such contemptible hypocrisy is a disgrace by any standard of accountable national democratic representation.

The most spurious arguments against reform are that the "floodgates" will open after the removal of the Eighth Amendment. It is argued that we will have, de facto, abortion on demand with up to one in four of pregnancies terminated, as in UK.

These fears were expressed about the 2013 act. It didn't happen; 26 terminations saved 26 women's lives. The HSE reports responsible implementation.

Our top obstetricians, like Dr Peter Boylan and Rhona Mahony, can be trusted to act in the public interest. But they tell us they still don't know what the legal distinction is in clarifying how close to death a pregnant woman has to be before doctors can carry out an abortion.

It is absurd to depend on the crude text of a referendum and constitutional law, rather than the precision in legislation, statutory instruments and protocols.

The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar could happen again. We need to assert the superior survival rights of women whose health is at risk. Pro-life proponents assert that the present position is preferable to legalised abortion. Those of a religious persuasion can abide by their own principles, but they shouldn't be allowed to control the State's rigid enforcement on all women with unwanted pregnancies.

Historically, mother and baby homes concealed the shame of pregnancy outside wedlock.

Today, we furtively send women abroad, abandoning their pain, to preserve a religious ethos that's outdated. Courage defines leadership. Where do Mr Kenny and Mr Martin stand?

Irish Independent

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