Sunday 16 June 2019

There's been no shortage of debate on abortion - but what we need is action

Pro-Choice supporters at a protest over abortion rights last year on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Photo: Tony Gavin
Pro-Choice supporters at a protest over abortion rights last year on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Photo: Tony Gavin
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Yesterday's ruling by the Northern Ireland High Court that its restrictive abortion law is a breach of women's human rights is another damning indictment of all-island political cowardice on the issue.

Mr Justice Mark Horner said the failure to provide abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or where the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, was a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the Republic, where abortion laws are even more restrictive than in the North, politicians should hang their heads in shame at the ruling. Instead, most are cock-a-hoop that the matter has been kicked to touch, with the status quo prevailing, for at least a couple of years.

Last week, Enda Kenny's announcement that Fine Gael, if returned to government, would convene yet another talking shop on what reforms to make to the abortion regime in this jurisdiction was widely praised as being a masterful political stroke.

With one deft move, said effusive political commentators, the Taoiseach managed to defuse any potential for infighting from different factions within Fine Gael, the liberal wing versus the bible thumpers, on the issue in advance of the next election.

First, a citizen's convention will be convened for an indeterminate length of time to see if any consensus can be reached on what to do about the inconvenient fact that the Eighth Amendment is a violation of the human rights of 50pc of the population.

After that, the plan becomes more nebulous. The Taoiseach has said his TDs would be given a free vote if legislation is eventually proposed. But the reality is any legislation liberalising abortion law, can only come after a referendum to either repeal or amend the Eighth Amendment.

So any Dáil vote that follows the proposed convention will necessarily be a vote to authorise the holding of a referendum. If TDs were to vote against that, they would be denying the Irish people the opportunity to have their say.

While the Taoiseach's announcement allows its TDs to pretend the party has some kind of coherent policy when it comes to abortion, the reality is there has been no shortage of debate on this issue. What has been sorely lacking is any action.

Working groups have produced reports; an all-party Oireachtas committee spent 18 months examining the issue; cabinet sub-committees have been tasked with driving policy; a green paper was produced; while an Oireachtas health committee spent weeks hearing contributions from medical and legal experts as well as civil society lobby groups in advance of X Case legislation being enacted.

All of these measures were touted by governments with great fanfare as being catalysts for change, but report after report were largely ignored as politicians refused to countenance any relaxation of our draconian laws.

While politicians continue to dither, thousands of protesters at a pro-choice march in September sent a clear message to TDs: lead, follow or get out of our way. In the face of unprecedented support for a referendum on our antiquated abortion laws, the response from politicians to women in Ireland has been: "Calm down, dears".

Apparently, we don't understand what's feasible. We are naïve. We are stupid. We don't understand the complexity of the issue. It's an emotive subject and we are being too loud, too vocal, too demanding, too annoying. We need to wait. Be more respectful of opposing views. Listen quietly and obediently and remember that, while the debate is about our bodies, we are not the experts. Others know better. We need to know our place.

It takes a special kind of condescension to mansplain abortion to women who have actually had one, but that is what the political establishment in Ireland has been doing for decades. Male-dominated Dáils have wrung their hands and wailed about how divisive and damaging the issue is - not to the 150,000 women who have had to travel for medical treatment over 30 years because of their cowardice, but rather damaging to their political careers.

Not even the High Court in Northern Ireland describing our laws as "incompatible with human rights law", or the UN castigating the law as treating women "as a vessel and nothing more", is sufficient to shame politicians into taking action. The inconvenient truth is that government after government has been happy to treat women in Ireland as insentient incubators whose primary responsibility is procreation at all costs.

Speaking on Sunday, Health Minister Leo Varadkar said it was his preference that the Eighth Amendment, "despite its failings", be retained and amended to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Mr Varadkar's anodyne language rather belies the three decades of suffering and trauma that has been inflicted on tens of thousands of women by that poorly drafted, religiously inspired, amendment.

Victims of rape and incest who have been forced to carry babies to term, women suffering from serious medical conditions, like cancer, being denied treatment and women made to feel like criminals for opting to exercise autonomy over their own bodies, an option that has been available to women in most other Western democracies since the 1960s.

The Health Minister's remarks are also at variance with comments he made in the Dáil last year, stating the Eighth Amendment has no regard for the long-term health of women or those who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. It's hard to see how any tinkering with the absolutist wording of the Eighth Amendment, which equates the life of a woman with that of a foetus, could overcome all of these difficulties.

Instead, it seems obvious any reform will necessarily entail the Eighth Amendment being repealed and legislation, outlining the circumstances in which women can have access to a safe and legal abortion in this country, being enacted. If Ireland is to comply with international human rights law, this will mean allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and where pregnancies pose a threat to women's health as well as their lives.

So, the talking shop announced by the Taoiseach, although politically expedient, is yet another delaying tactic to outsource decision making and postpone any change for as long as possible. The price of this indecision will be the Irish State continuing to knowingly breach the human rights of its female citizens.

Irish Independent

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