THE abortion debate has suddenly been forced back on to centre stage in Ireland. For the last 20 years this moment has been coming.
The recent tragic events in Galway will now be a catalyst, but it may not lead to the kind of debate that politicians had hoped for. There is never a good time to have to face a deeply divisive moral issue like this, but politicians must take the blame for always hoping there would be a better time
In 1992 the ‘X’ case shocked the country. Let me lay my cards on the table, I was very closely aligned to Albert Reynolds at this time. When the crisis struck it was thought to be the worst possible start to his tenure. Later that year the government attempted to deal with the fall out of the case. In short, the 1992 judgement allows for abortion where there is a risk to the life of the mother . The threat of suicide is accepted as being such a risk.
The problem was that many argued this could lead to abortion on demand. The response of the government was to pose three questions, one on the right to travel, one on the right to information (both of these passed) and another on the so called substantive issue.
The government attempted to insert a line to clarify that abortion was allowable where the mother’s life was threatened but a suicide threat was not reason enough. It was hoped that this would prevent the scenario developing along the same lines as things had in the UK.
That issue was lost. I remember this debate well. From my knowledge of Reynolds he was a man very much opposed to abortion.
However, during that campaign a number of catholic bishops opposed the referendum and it was suggested that the government was trying to introduce abortion by the back door.
The government argued that it was actually trying to close the door and that the alternative was to accept the Supreme Court judgement and legislate to allow abortion even in the case of a threat of suicide that may be hard to determine.
Now, the problem for the politicians in the wake of this defeat was evident. Firstly the referendum had been defeated with more than a little help from those opposing abortion. The politicians did not really know what the people wanted. The pro-choice lobby argued it was a definitive statement to say that the people wanted abortion to be legislated for; the anti-abortion lobby said the opposite.
The government had made one bad error which was to threaten they would legislate for the x case if the amendment was defeated. This came back to haunt them.
They did not want to legislate when many of them thought the Irish people actually wanted the exact opposite. So the question was forgotten even through several changes of government parties.
We, as a society, decided to leave well enough alone too. In 2002 the government again decided to revisit the issue. This time a much more substantive proposal was on the table. The referendum proposed the same general thrust, to accept the Supreme Court ruling that abortion was acceptable to save the life of the mother but to disallow the threat of suicide as grounds for an abortion.
This referendum came with a much heavier dose of back up legislation and proposals. While the Catholic Church seemed to move on from its 1992 position some fundamental voices such as that of Dana Rosemary Scallon continued to oppose it. This referendum was also lost but there was only just over 10,000 votes in the difference, less than 1%. The turn out of 43% was disappointing on an issue that was supposed to mean so much.
The problem for the politicians was again plain to see. The turnout was disappointing and the result too close to be in any way a decisive indicator. What did people really want? The best you could say was that you could try another referendum and probably half the population will be angry with you for it or you can legislate now for the ‘X’ case and the other half will be furious.
In the end they decided to leave well enough alone. The theory was that the X case judgment was the basis of abortion law in Ireland now. So a mother was allowed to have an abortion if her life was at risk and if she was threatening suicide then that was an acceptable grounds. So long as nobody had to think about it then all was ok.
The problem with this approach was that it left everything in a grey area. It meant that the matter could still be open to interpretation. At the very least there was a total lack of clarity. Even though the judgment allowed for the abortion nothing had been inserted in the constitution or in legislation to underpin that or make it a responsibility.
The news that broke last night is indicative of that grey area. The time for indecision is gone. Legislating for the X case is the simplest option open to the government but it is not an easy one. The fear remains that to do so will lead to abortion on demand and there are politicians who, apart from obvious vote concerns, have a serious moral issue with doing that. A referendum would allow the government the cover of accepting the will of the people.
That referendum will be bitter and the government knows that no referendum is easy to win. There can be no excuses however, the politicians must decide on a course of action and see it through, whatever result that may bring. We cannot avoid this any longer.
Johnny Fallon is a political commentator