Saturday 21 April 2018

Pro-lifers attack President's wife for remarks on abortion

Sabina Higgins. Photo: Iain White/Fennell Photography
Sabina Higgins. Photo: Iain White/Fennell Photography

Martin Grant

Pro-life groups have heavily criticised Sabina Higgins, the wife of President Michael D Higgins, for what they called her "hurtful" comments on abortion. Others, however, have supported her intervention in the debate.

The Irish Independent revealed yesterday that Ms Higgins told midwifery students she believed a pregnant woman being made to carry a pregnancy to full term in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality was "an outrage against women".

Although abortion in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality is not allowed under current laws, the issue is an area where many pro-choice campaigners want abortion to be permitted.

Ms Higgins has now come in for heavy criticism from a number of charities and pro-life groups, whilst a number of politicians and academics have rowed in behind her.

The charity Every Life Counts described the comments by the President's wife as "appalling" and an "outrage".

Spokeswoman Tracey Harkin said the group wanted Ms Higgins to withdraw her remarks.

She added: "It is really appalling that in an age where we expect our commentators to be cognisant of harmful language and of the rights of people with disabilities, the President's wife has made these remarks.

"My own daughter, Kathleen Rose (9), is living with Trisomy 13, a condition described by campaigners as a 'fatal, foetal abnormality'. Does Ms Higgins think she has no right to life?"

The Pro-Life Campaign (PLC) has argued that Ms Higgins' comments were "calculated" and "inappropriate".

"Given Ms Higgins's position, it is wholly inappropriate for her to have intervened in this way in the abortion debate," said PLC spokeswoman Cora Sherlock.

"Ms Higgins has a responsibility to represent the views of more than just the abortion lobby. How are the heartbroken families of children who had life-limiting conditions and who only lived for a short while supposed to read her intervention?"

The Life Institute also believes that the intervention was an "abuse of privilege".

Spokeswoman Niamh Uí Bhriain said: "It seems that Ms Higgins is seizing the pulpit of the Presidential office to push her own agenda on the killing of unborn babies.

"This is unprecedented and has ensured that the office of President is now seen as part of an abortion campaign, a move which would be opposed by the majority of Irish people."

However, one of the country's leading lecturers in constitutional law has said that Ms Higgins is entitled to make such statements. University College Cork (UCC) lecturer Dr Conor O'Mahony said there were "no formal restrictions" in the Constitution regarding the conduct of the President's spouse.

Dr O'Mahony advised that restrictions were only imposed when the President made a formal address to either the Oireachtas or the nation on a matter of national importance, in which case the address must be approved by the Government.

"Beyond that, the Constitution places no restrictions on the President's public statements and says nothing at all about the President's spouse.

"It is custom and practice for Presidents to stay aloof from party politics and to avoid criticising Government policy," said Dr O'Mahony.

"However, it is not realistic to expect that no public statements may ever be made by members of the President's family expressing an opinion on any political matter.

"President Higgins's daughter Alice Mary Higgins has just been elected to the Seanad. She is obviously free to be overtly political in her work as a Senator."

Meanwhile, Independent MEP Nessa Childers has rowed in behind Ms Higgins, describing the criticism and backlash as "ridiculous".

She said: "Sabina has the right to express her opinion and we can either agree or disagree.

"People criticising Sabina Higgins are saying she could damage the office of the President, whereas the continuation of our abortion law and failure to repeal the 8th Amendment causes damage to actual people, not an office."

Ms Higgins made the unscripted remarks following a debate by midwifery students in Trinity College Dublin.

A spokesman for Áras an Uachtaráin declined to comment on the issue last night.

Irish Independent

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