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Our abortion laws cut no ice with United Nations


Few subjects are as explosive or as charged emotionally as abortion

Few subjects are as explosive or as charged emotionally as abortion

Few subjects are as explosive or as charged emotionally as abortion

It's almost a year since the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, got a dressing down in front of the United Nations Human Rights Committee under the chairmanship of one of the world's leading human and civil rights activists and experts. Another UN committee, that on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, gave a similar dressing down last week to Sean Sherlock, the junior minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The topic on both occasions was Ireland's abortion laws, or rather our lack of them. Sean Sherlock's grilling coincided with a sizzling condemnation of those same laws, in very specific terms, in a report based on research carried out here and in Britain in the past year on behalf of Amnesty International. Not, you will note, a bunch of agenda-carrying Irish subversive lefty activists, but a qualified team of statisticians.

Its findings bear out the opinions of both UN committees that our abortion laws are barbaric and a threat to the lives and health of pregnant women. And the Amnesty report, because it deals specifically with case histories, states roundly that if Ireland allowed abortion on health grounds, the late Savita Halappanavar could be alive today.

To date, that issue has been fudged by various authorities here (who should have more courage) into general terms like "mistakes in clinical care" while anti-abortion activists have roundly denied even the faintest possibility that an abortion being denied to Ms Halappanavar had anything to do with her death.

The Amnesty statisticians interviewed many people in Ireland, including 11 healthcare professionals, among them the masters of the two main maternity hospitals, the Rotunda and the National at Holles Street in Dublin. They also spoke to representatives from women's health centres and staff from the Crisis Pregnancy Agency as well as the Irish Medical Council. But with breathtaking arrogance, the departments of Health and Justice both declined to be interviewed. What, one wonders, are they afraid of? Could it be that they have no answers to an overwhelming body of logic and international human rights statutes?

Of course it's possible to claim that the only people prepared to speak out are what anti-abortionists would call a vocal minority with an agenda which does not represent the national consensus. Except that Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, and Dr Sam Coulter-Smith, Master of the Rotunda, meet more than a vocal minority in their daily rounds, and they were both interviewed. They meet pregnant women across the entire spectrum, from those blissfully happy to be pregnant, to desperate victims of rape who feel that they have been invaded by something akin to a cancer.

And Dr Mahony spoke at the launch of the Amnesty report. She said that while a woman qualifies for a termination if there is a real and substantial risk to her life, the process used is "cumbersome and complicated"… and it is framed "in a criminal context".

This is the process defended by Frances Fitzgerald a year ago, when she told the UN Committee on Human Rights that there had been "a number of significant recent developments in relation to access to lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland". She was talking about the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, heralded as a breakthrough by the government, as moral turpitude by many anti-abortionists, and utterly inadequate by those who support international definitions of human and civil rights

It is also the process under which Miss Y was treated. She is the teenage asylum seeker who spoke no English when she arrived here having been made pregnant through rape in her country of origin. She was denied an abortion here, and because of her circumstances could not travel for one.

Frances Fitzgerald's defence of the process cut no ice with the UN Committee on Human Rights last year. The chairman, Sir Nigel Rodley, said "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 begin to understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former".

When Sean Sherlock batted along the same lines as Ms Fitzgerald last week at another UN committee, he got the same outraged and unbelieving response. Its chairman, Walid Sa'di from Jordan, said the division between church and state in Ireland appeared to be "a little fuzzy." So much for the Irish perception of our being a post-religious society (whether for good or ill.)

Mr Sa'di added that this would not be unusual in a developing country, but the division between church and state is "almost sacrosanct" in European countries, and our lack of it makes Ireland "unique". The implication was that Ireland's abortion restrictions are religiously-based, something fiercely denied by anti-abortion activists.

A South Korean member of the committee commented that the protection of life for the unborn in the Irish constitution appeared to "elevate the unborn to the status of a citizen", while the Special Rapporteur for Ireland (a Mauritian judge) demanded to know why there has not been a referendum here on the constitutional protection for the foetus, if it prevents our complying with the International Covenant on ESCR.

As a result, few international experts on civil and human rights have managed, it is clear, to get to the root of Irish attitudes, where a vocal minority believes that an unborn foetus is a citizen, which in logic means they probably should be campaigning for a referendum to give a pregnant woman two votes.

Just as a silent majority does have compassion for a woman or girl desperate for a solution to a pregnancy begun in unthinkable circumstances, or faced with the possibility of carrying to term a cruelly damaged foetus which will die within minutes. Nobody is trying to deny a woman whose wish is to carry such a pregnancy to term - civil rights campaigners and activists merely want her to have a choice. There are those who would defend that right but also add "but I wouldn't want to see abortion on demand".

What should be acknowledged is that we do have abortion on demand: it's called a flight to Birmingham… except in tragic cases such as that of Miss Y, exactly the kind of woman whom campaigners for a change in the law are trying to protect.

Sunday Independent