Saturday 16 December 2017

'R word' isn't going away but only foolhardy see it as solution

TRY as they might the 'R-word' just will not go away. Almost everybody at Leinster House agrees that limited legislation is the way to defuse – if not definitively resolve – this 30-year-old crux about abortion and the law in Ireland.

All mainstream and experienced politicians began this work on the agreed assumption that the 'R-word' – a referendum - risked unleashing all sorts of divisive horrors at a time when the nation's focus must be on fixing a broken economy.

Day two of the three days of hearings by TDs and senators on the abortion issue yesterday threw up a great deal of agreement from the expert witnesses. Many of the repeated questions again focused on the issue of suicide.

For the second consecutive day, politicians asked if experts believed that including a threat of death by suicide to a mother's life as grounds for abortion might 'open the floodgates' to a much wider range of abortion availability.

During the morning sessions, barrister and doctor Simon Mills was insistent that this would not happen and his views were trenchantly echoed by University of Limerick law lecturer Jennifer Schweppe.

But the contribution of Dr Alan Brady of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties raised the first signals of the 'R-word'. Dr Brady suggested that Ireland's failure to provide an abortion in cases of foetal abnormalities may well breach Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment. But it is likely that any such move might require a referendum.

In the course of the afternoon, the veteran lawyer and campaigner against abortion, William Binchy, took an entirely different view. There was no need to legislate for abortion, especially not on grounds of a mother's risk of death by suicide.

For Prof Binchy, the threat of doctors being prosecuted under a 150-year law could be dealt with by official protocols and guidelines. He insisted that legislating for abortion would inevitably change the culture of Irish medicine and over time abortion would become widely used.

The former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness totally disagreed, insisting that talk of 'opening floodgates' showed a lack of trust in Irish doctors and Irish people generally. But she had a strong message for various politicians who asked about bringing forward legislation that avoided provision for suicide under the 1992 X case.

For Ms McGuinness there was no avoiding the provisions of the X Case. "If you want to change it you are going to have to have a referendum," she said simply.

Back to the 'R-word', something already tried without success in September 1983, November 1992 and March 2002.

Only the very brave and/or foolhardy would surmise that another visit to the ballot boxes, via a bitter and acrimonious row on wordings, would suggest that yet another referendum will offer any remedy.

However, one message from yesterday's hearings was that TDs and senators who remain totally opposed to accepting a mother's suicide threat as part of planned legislation on abortion may, in fact, be opening 'floodgates' of another sort entirely.

Those 'floodgates' may lead to Ireland's fourth referendum on the issue and that could open up all sorts of possibilities, which trenchant opponents of abortion may find counterproductive.

Irish Independent

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