Wednesday 26 October 2016

I won't vote for any party that continues to shirk dealing with Eighth Amendment

Published 17/09/2015 | 02:30

Enda Kenny said that Fine Gael would not commit, in its election manifesto, to abolish the Eighth Amendment
Enda Kenny said that Fine Gael would not commit, in its election manifesto, to abolish the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth. It's shorthand for something beautiful, inspirational and life-affirming in other cultures - Beethoven's Symphony No 8. But in Ireland, it's the polar opposite. Here, it's code for a harsh law that turns a pregnant woman into a receptacle, a clumsy piece of legislation that alarms and immobilises doctors.

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Fear elbows its way to the forefront when the abortion question is raised. Politicians are terrified to tackle it in case of voter backlash. Medical teams are scared about being sued, even where a patient's welfare requires it.

And women are silenced by the risk of stigma if they admit to an abortion. Finally, however, the silence is being breached. Journalist Roisin Ingle and actress Tara Flynn felt the fear and told their stories anyway in recent days, and deserve our thanks for their candour.

This culture of dread about addressing abortion tows paralysis in its wake - inertia is its legacy, despite a number of cases lately highlighting the dangers to women from the Eighth.

Enough. It must go.

Not in the interests of pregnant women, nor for women in general, but for everyone's sake - men and women. Ireland must stop covering its eyes. It needs to recognise that exporting a problem is a lazy, irresponsible and dishonest way of coping with it.

The Eighth is the constitutional amendment which gives an embryo and a woman equal status under the law. In effect, it means her physical and emotional health, her autonomy over her body, take second place to a foetus which could not exist independently of her.

This law has been on the statute books for 32 years, and continues to put women's lives in potential jeopardy today. It helped to kill pregnant dentist Savita Halappanavar. It obliged an asylum seeker, raped as an act of war, to give birth here against her will. It led to a clinically dead woman being kept alive because she was in the early stages of pregnancy, while lawyers argued across her life support machine. It demands that women carrying babies which are incapable of survival continue to full term - a breathtaking act of cruelty. The Eighth should be a source of shame to Ireland. Yet still it remains embedded in the Constitution.

Enough. It must go.

A self-funded campaign, spearheaded by female and male writers and artists, is now under way to have it repealed. Signatories are petitioning all political parties to commit to a referendum on the Eighth in their 2016 election manifestos.

This is a law which does a profound disservice to women, denying them "modern reproductive heath services in line with best medical practice and human rights norms," according to the Artists' Campaign To Repeal The Eighth Amendment.

It is a law reminiscent of earlier, ignominious ones which denied self-determination to women - for example, assigning chattel status to married women. But it not only diminishes women, it puts them at risk.

Politicians must answer the call. They should do their duty and bring this matter before the public, giving people a chance to vote the Eighth out of existence. It is unacceptable for so many TDs to loiter on the sidelines - they ought to be leading from the front. An election is just months away. I will not tick the box for any party which continues to shirk dealing with the Eighth; such a party's message is that a pregnant woman's health is not worth protecting. I urge readers to make similar electoral choices.

Enough. It must go.

To be replaced with - what? That's open to discussion, and one we need to engage in communally. An intimidating prospect, perhaps, in view of the passion stirred up by abortion, but one we can neither hedge nor evade.

The Constitution should be a guiding star - a yardstick for standards, ethics and aspirations. To operate as that touchstone, it needs to be a principles-based document. Currently, however, it is choked with specifics - and the more words we add, the more capable it becomes of misinterpretation or being read in various ways. When that happens, it is rendered ineffective. Redundant.

The Constitution was hijacked in 1983 when the Eighth Amendment was inserted. Let's pause to remember its wording: "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right." No mention of the word 'abortion' - what a complicated people we are, such resistance to facing facts.

Anyhow, here's one of those unpalatable facts: there are times when a surgeon is left with a dilemma. The decision of which life to save, mother or baby? The Eighth is a piece of legislation which hinders his or her decision-making. That's the chill factor heard about in relation to the Eighth.

The answer? And so to law. The courts are meant to be guardians of the Constitution - but amendments such as the Eighth mean they end up being interpreters of it. Lawyers do a doctor's job because politicians won't do theirs.

It's true that a law was passed permitting terminations in extremely limited circumstances. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (2013) allows abortion when continued pregnancy would result in the mother's death, or where a woman is suicidal. But medical teams draw scant comfort from its shelter, and no wonder. It offers dubious cover.

The right to life of the unborn has been a divisive issue for decades, and continues to be so; conflict-ridden because even those who favour deleting the amendment differ about the cut-off point for terminations. Nevertheless, the Eighth must be removed because we all have sisters, daughters, cousins, workmates and neighbours whose health or lives could be sacrificed to its inflexibility.

I've signed the petition. Please consider adding your signature: you don't have to be an artist, or a woman - we're all people first.

And we really need to stop looking away. It's on

Enough. It must go.

Irish Independent

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