Wednesday 22 January 2020

Liz McManus: Culture of secrecy and silence brought us to this sorry place

WE don't know the precise details of Savita Halappanavar's death, but we know she was denied medical intervention in an Irish hospital. Her request for an abortion was denied, according to her husband, on the grounds that Ireland is a Catholic country and that she could only be induced if there was no foetal heartbeat.

It is incorrect to describe Ireland as a Catholic country. It is a Republic, one that is increasingly multicultural. It is also untrue to say that a foetal heartbeat is the barometer on whether an abortion can be carried out. The Constitution fulfils that role. It provides that a woman has a right to an abortion where there is a real and substantial threat to her life.

Savita spent her last days in agony. Then this beautiful, gifted, young woman died. It is a tragedy that has resonated deeply with the public who have come in sympathy onto the streets across Ireland.

There has been a public outcry before. On the X Case, the C Case and, more recently, the ABC Case. There have been protest marches and stormy debates in the Dail. There have been two referenda.

Twenty years have passed since the X Case. The decision of the Supreme Court still stands: to grant the right to women to have an abortion where there is a real and substantial threat, including self-destruction, to her life.

Since 1992 there has been a Constitutional imperative to legislate, but it has been ignored by successive governments. At the time of the judgment, Mr Justice McCarthy of the Supreme Court asked what were pregnant women and doctors to do without legal clarity? We are still waiting for that clarity.

A 1995/96 report by the Constitution Review Group chaired by TK Whitaker recommended legislating in line with the X Case. Nothing happened. In 2000 the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, of which I was a member, published its report on abortion. We heard from the anti-abortion and pro-choice organisations, from the clergy and the Muslim faith, from medical professionals and academics.

What struck me forcibly at the time was that we never heard from a woman who either had an abortion, or had been denied one. Silence and secrecy were the hallmarks of that experience. They still are.

The report reflected the divergent views of committee members, but we did agree on one proposal. A strategy to reduce the number of women travelling for abortions through prevention and support measures was outlined. Subsequently, the overall rate had been reduced, but abortion is still a significant part of Irish life. We just don't talk about it. Each day, 12 women travel abroad to access abortion services.

In Irish hospitals, when there is a clear-cut threat to a woman's life an abortion is carried out. But absolute certainty, generally, is not a feature of medical practice. Doctors have referred to this grey area. That's why legal clarity is vital. It is a situation that serves nobody well. It leaves women at risk of death and doctors at risk of criminal action.

Interestingly, the medical profession has moved on the issue. The Medical Council guidelines specify that an abortion is permitted in certain circumstances. The people have moved on too. Opinion polls have identified increasing support for legislation in line with the X Case.

This is a test for the Oireachtas. The European Court of Human Rights requires a report from the Irish Government. The Government can seize this chance to prove we are facing up to our responsibilities.

Such a new approach could incorporate: a reduction in the timeframe of the investigations into Savita's death; immediate publication of the report of the expert group set up by the Government, and a commitment to introduce legislative certainty in line with the X Case within a specified timeframe.

The pro-life, pro-choice arguments can be put aside for another day. Legislation will not change the current situation on abortion. It simply gives it clarity.

The children at the time of the Supreme Court decision have grown up. Some are young women now, of child-bearing age. They deserve our protection. Just like Savita did.

Irish Independent

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