Emer O'Kelly: We need the courage to make sad choices
Our ham-fisted legislation on abortion is the result of failure to make difficult ethical decisions, says Emer O'Kelly
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
Senator Ronan Mullen described our abortion legislation as "mad, bad, and dangerous" when he was interviewed on Tuesday on RTE. And he is absolutely right. Ireland was a dangerous place to have a crisis pregnancy before the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. We now know what many legal and medical authorities warned us of: the Act may have made it even more dangerous.
Professor Gavin Barrett of the Sutherland School of Law in UCD is a specialist in European and constitutional law. When some facts emerged a week ago concerning the tragic immigrant and her ghastly story of Irish state brutality, he pointed out that our abortion legislation, in seeking to satisfy both sides of the argument, could not possibly satisfy either position. The legislators knew that: and in passing the bill , they ensured that the savage, barbaric story that has filled our news pages and airwaves for the past week, would happen sooner rather than later.
I did not realise then that the legislation was so unbelievably ham-fisted that even a medical agency such as the Irish Family Planning Association, which is prepared to give advice which includes termination information, finds itself effectively unable to provide the assistance which the law claims to provide.
The patient was eight weeks pregnant, young, traumatised, and claimed to have been raped in her own country. She sought refuge in ours, and subsequently threatened suicide if she was not allowed a termination. When she was 16 weeks pregnant, she attempted unsuccessfully to kill herself. She was admitted to hospital at 24 weeks pregnant, and again begged for a termination.
A committee of two psychiatrists and an obstetrician met under the requirements of the Act. The psychiatrists accepted that she was indeed suicidal; the obstetrician offered the opinion that at 24 weeks, the only option for termination was Caesarean delivery. Terrified, the young woman went on hunger and thirst strike.
It took 16 weeks from the time a frightened young woman asked for a termination, and eight weeks from the time she attempted suicide, to convene the required people to argue about legal and medical angels on heads of pins.
The anti-abortionists had, to do them justice, pointed out the possibility of this medieval horror when the Act was passed: under its terms, abortion for threatened suicide, if the mother's life is medically threatened, or if there is a medical emergency, can be carried out up to the due date for delivery under Ireland's "restrictive" law. Few people of humanity would argue with late intervention in terms of medical need to save the woman's life. Equally, there are very few people, however strongly they believe in a liberal abortion regime, who would favour a woman left threatening, or perhaps attempting suicide so late in pregnancy.
The same thing happened with the original abortion referendum: it achieved the opposite of what the anti-abortionists wanted. Now a young woman has had her life destroyed, once by rape, and once by statutory brutality, because of it. Her unwanted child, rejected as an invasion of her bodily integrity, as rape pregnancies are frequently perceived by the victim, will, if it lives, probably have damaged and compromised health. And the Justice Minister says the Government is "monitoring" the situation . . . and the legislation.
Frances Fitzgerald also said, only last month, that "the issues of right to life have now been addressed" in Ireland. Because "there have been a number of significant recent developments in relation to access to lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland." Indeed there have: we saw them last week.
The complacency is breathtaking: a despairing, frightened young woman has been reduced to the status of a guinea pig under a law that flies in the face of international human rights requirements. And given the official obfuscation (more properly it should be called cowardice) concerning the legislation, we do not know how many more desperate women in recent months have been added to the list of those who over the years have found themselves in a living hell because "Ireland is a Catholic country."
Frances Fitzgerald made her remarks when Ireland was before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. Questioned by media representatives after she so spiritedly defended the Irish legislation, she also said there were no plans for another referendum to bring us into line with our obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Chair of the UN Committee, Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the world's leading experts on torture and human rights, was blistering in his reaction: "The recognition of the primary right to life of the woman, who is an existent human being, has to prevail over that of the unborn child, and I can't understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former…to suggest that regardless of the health consequences of a pregnancy a person may be doomed to continue it at the risk of criminal penalties is difficult to understand, even more arguably for rape [my italics] where the person doesn't even bear any responsibility and is by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more."
On Tuesday, the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Dr Kevin Doran, called the week's revelations "a better outcome than abortion".
And the Pro-Life Campaign, of which Senator Ronan Mullen is a leading member, said the UN committee "had a worryingly shallow understanding of human rights." I laughed when I read that last month. I am not laughing in the light of the past week's events. We need to stop laughing, however despairingly; we need to stop weeping.
We need to have the courage to say as a people that in crisis pregnancies, there can be no equal right to life. A sad choice will always have to be made. Throughout history, depending on the culture of a society, that choice has been made either in favour of the mother or the unborn child. Hopefully, we won't often have to choose; but when we do, will our choice be primitive or compassionately humane?