Monday 24 October 2016

Lack of consent in our ill State

Published 25/11/2012 | 05:00

If consent defines the health of a democracy, then this State is ill. In recent years, consent, or the lack of it, has centred on economic issues such as bank guarantees. However, for two weeks now, the country has been united in anger over a very different form of consent. One of the reasons the death of Savita Halappanavar has been so iconic is that so much of her fate rests on the issue of consent.

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Initially, this came in the form of the denial of the pleas of a terrified woman for an abortion before insult was added to injury, by the decision of the Government and the HSE to go ahead with an inquiry, again without the consent of the widowed husband.

The anger sparked by these acts is likely to intensify even further in the wake of the Expert Group Report, which reveals that the rights of vulnerable, ill, pregnant Irish women, their husbands, partners and children are defined by a 19th-Century piece of statute law.

The issue of abortion is a tangled and emotive one. But no one in this country has consented to a law that states: "Every woman, being with child, who with intent to procure her own miscarriage shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing . . . shall be guilty of a felony and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life."

It is tempting to say that only a country run by men would allow such a state of affairs to continue. But informed feminists will recognise that political indifference, moral cowardice, lethargy, ignorance and the desire to pander to a mob are gender-neutral weaknesses. It should not be too much, surely, to ask that, next week, the Government might desist from the attractive, well-travelled road of running for the hills when they are confronted by a moral issue. Sadly, the omens are not good. Mr Kenny in particular has struggled to understand that the furore sparked by the death of Savita Halappanavar is not just about the X Case. It has instead mutated into a far broader question, which, to quote Joan Burton, raised the most primal fears amongst women over whether they are safe in Irish hospitals.

One would have hoped a cabinet, which should vividly recall the political devastation inflicted by the public over the brutish treatment of Brigid McCole, would have displayed more finesse. Instead, the Taoiseach's Dail performance last week provided us with an exceptional display of stupidity as he fretted over the 'construction' that would have been placed on any attempt by him to contact Mr Halappanavar. Whither now the bright, new dawn of the Dail Cloyne speech with its impassioned critique of the 'gimlet' eyes of Vatican lawyers, as Mr Kenny appears paralysed from doing what would be right for fear of what the neighbours might think.

This miserable little philosophy is, instead, all too pervasive in an administration that appears terrified of every shadow it imagines. Next week, it will meet something more substantial when the Expert Group Report is released. Hopefully, in the wake of that publication, Eamon Gilmore will stiffen the spine of the Taoiseach sufficiently, to allow him to step out from the Vatican shadows and legislate for the X and C cases in a manner that meets the consent of the people, rather than the rules of canon and 19th-Century law.

Such a measure, though belated, would at least secure the consent of the citizens and allow some degree of catharsis to begin.

Sunday Independent

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