Friday 30 September 2016

We need to discuss abortion - that includes men

Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30

President Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina in Liberty Hall following the State ceremony for James Connolly. Photo: Gerry Mooney
President Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina in Liberty Hall following the State ceremony for James Connolly. Photo: Gerry Mooney

We need to talk. Not shout, claim the high ground for our views, or seek to monsterise those with a different perspective. An honest and considered conversation about the 'A word' is overdue.

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People dread it because abortion arouses 'sturm und drang' like no other subject. But it can't be postponed for fear of the extremes of opinion it will stir up. This discussion needs to happen because a question mark hovers over whether the current legislation on abortion is a true reflection of what Irish society wants.

It is almost 33 years since the constitutional ban on abortion known as the Eighth Amendment was made law. Those who voted for it in 1983 are long past childbearing age - the youngest among them are in their early fifties. Meanwhile, another generation has grown up under this flawed amendment with its imprecise wording that has led to decades of wrangling.

Rather than legal interpretations, let's hear the democratic will of the people on the matter. We are a Republic, after all.

A referendum is essential. We should listen to the arguments for and against, think for ourselves, and use our votes to promote what we believe to be fairest for Irish society. Many Irish people appear to take a nuanced view of abortion, in which compassion for women and couples caught in dreadful situations plays a part.

There would seem to be a certain amount of backing for limited access to abortion in the case of rape and incest, as well as for conditions incompatible with life outside the womb and where the mother's health is at risk. However, we don't honestly know how high that support is, in the absence of a referendum.

We do know, though, that doctors are paralysed by fear of being criminalised for suggesting something which may be in a patient's best interests. That's unacceptable. Couples and pregnant women are entitled to clear medical advice to help them reach difficult decisions.

Since Savita Halappanavar's needless death, it has been understood that abortion can be a medical question rather than an ethical one. Ireland has an obligation to provide safe healthcare for its pregnant women, and sometimes termination is an unavoidable part of that. Women with pregnancies where the baby cannot live, or which threaten their own lives, have been left adrift by the Irish State. The medical profession, too, has been failed.

Let us recognise that removing the Eighth does not mean an automatic abortion-on-demand system, as pro-life groups claim. Let us consider whether there might not be circumstances in which some of our citizens need access to safe abortion services. Would it be humane and responsible to provide them?

Those who care for a child with an extreme set of needs deserve praise, and I salute them. They are entitled to as many State supports as they require. However, not everyone can meet the same challenge as they do. Shouldn't we consider giving those people a choice? To be clear, I am referring to acute special needs and brief life expectancies.

The decision either to continue or discontinue such a pregnancy is a personal matter, and governments ought not to impose a general course of action. Currently, the Constitution butts in.

One of the realities of abortion in Ireland is that it's a matter of income. Well-off people have the option to go overseas but those on low incomes face more restrictions. This also needs to be part of the debate.

With a few notable exceptions, male voices are curiously silent. You'd nearly imagine the babies were immaculate conceptions. So I'd like to know how fathers of aborted babies feel. Relief? Or do they regret the absence of that child in their lives? Was the abortion consensual? Did they offer practical and financial support to the woman to proceed with pregnancy? Those experiences could help to inform the discussion.

We also need to accept that abortion is not an option chosen with a light heart by anybody. Nobody is delighted to have one. But people can be relieved, and stories about women riddled with guilt afterwards may be exaggerations. And so to the reason why we're engaged in this conversation currently: Sabina Higgins and her "outrage against women" reference to being forced to endure pregnancies incompatible with life. A convention exists against the President's husband or wife sharing opinions publicly, but no law forbids it.

Personally, I believe the President's other half is entitled to express a view, whether or not I agree with it, but I find it more desirable if he or she abides by the custom of silence. While not a mouthpiece of the President's, the two, undeniably, are closely linked.

However, there may be exceptional circumstances - such as a humanitarian issue - where the President's partner is convinced they can make a difference. To my mind, the Eighth is such a case.

However, Mrs Higgins's choice of language was an unnecessary provocation. While her words were unscripted, it would have been wiser if she had marshalled her argument before speaking, and advanced it with precision. She must have suspected the matter would be raised during the debate by midwifery students. On balance, while her intervention was counterproductive to its intentions, at least it serves as a reminder that the subject must be considered.

The Citizens' Convention is charged with that task. Perhaps Enda Kenny believes if the convention recommends a referendum, it gives him sound grounds for proceeding. Unfortunately, it is causing further delay. In a recent Amnesty International/Red C poll, seven in 10 people with a view said abortion should be a priority for the current government, while 87pc believed access to abortion should be expanded.

The new Government has an opportunity to take a brave step here. As a minority administration, it is unlikely to accomplish much, but a referendum on abortion is democracy in action. Let's have a measured public debate. Those 33 years since the Eighth was passed have been long and fraught: a new generation of citizens wants to vote.

Irish Independent

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