Sunday 22 September 2019

The fight to keep Irish abortions in England

It is an issue of conscience, but only one side actually gets to exercise its conscience, writes Gene Kerrigan

Carol Nolan, Sinn Fein TD from Offaly, is campaigning tirelessly to keep the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution. Many of us strongly oppose that view, yet we cannot deny Nolan's sincerity.

"I was bound by my conscience", she told The Irish Times. "I am acting on my conscience and my beliefs."

She was suspended by Sinn Fein for acting against party policy, which is to repeal the Eighth.

I think Sinn Fein is wrong in suspending her.

Similarly, in 2013, when Fine Gael condemned Lucinda Creighton for opposing the party line on abortion, many believed that to be wrong and said so at the time.

Fine Gael effectively expelled Creighton and others for acting on their conscience, and that was vindictive.

There's a wide consensus in society on what's right and what's wrong. There are some issues where that consensus doesn't exist - and abortion is one of them. In such cases, we each depend on our conscience to inform our decisions.

And that's where Carol Nolan and others like her puzzle me.

They demand freedom to act on their conscience on abortion. Yet they deny that freedom to those who take a position with which they disagree.

They are sincere in their opposition to abortion. It follows, therefore, that they should not make a decision to have an abortion, or to personally procure one. And they have a right to seek to convince others to share their beliefs.

But Ms Nolan, her fellow Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin, and those campaigning to "save the Eighth", go much, much further.

They demand that there be no other lawful choice except the one they have made. They want to keep in place a Constitutional ban that applies to all women - now and forever - whatever the circumstances those women face.

Amid the complexity of life, people are on occasion faced with difficult choices. One of these is to terminate a pregnancy or to go through with it. Either is a major decision. Two women, in precisely the same circumstances, might make opposing decisions.

Carol Nolan and her side demand that no woman should be allowed make her own choice, that by law and Constitutional imperative it must accord with theirs.

Let's leave aside the frantic circumstances of 1983, when politicians fearful of being denounced from the pulpit hurried to insert the Eighth Amendment, regardless of consequences.

Some of the "save the Eighth" people would allow an abortion to save a woman's life. But if the pregnancy threatens "only" to wreck the woman's physical or mental health, they demand that the Constitution ensures she must see it through.

Medics treating such a woman must, amid an unfolding crisis, judge exactly when a risk to her health turns into a risk to her life. Make a mistake, and it's a crime with a 14-year penalty. They must work with one eye on their patient, the other eye on their legal position.

The "pro-life" forces have nothing to say to raped and pregnant children, or to raped and pregnant women.

And if a woman knows that the foetus inside her will at best live just long enough to lose the fight to breathe they nevertheless demand that she see the pregnancy through.

In this stark view of the world, there's no place for a woman's intellect or conscience. The choice, whatever circumstances she might face, has already been made. By Carol Nolan and her "save the Eighth" comrades, sincerely substituting their own consciences for the consciences of all women in Ireland, forever.

There is not another measure implemented in the history of the state that is so intrusive, so authoritarian in personal matters, so cruel in its effects as the Eighth Amendment.

But, wait.

We all know the truth. All this "pro-life" stuff is nonsense. We all know that the supposed Constitutional ban on abortion is a fraud.

There's a reality that we know exists. The state, with the quiet acquiescence of the "pro-life" forces, have - how shall we put it? Made arrangements.

In today's Ireland there's an abortion infrastructure availed of by about 4,000 women a year. That infrastructure was carefully constructed by the political parties, with a nod from the Catholic Church and a wink from the allegedly "pro-life" forces.

In May 1992, a news report said the next day's Guardian newspaper, from the UK, would carry an advert for abortion facilities. Gardai were on hand when the newspaper arrived at Dublin Airport, but they weren't required to act, as the newspaper was withheld from sale. All 2,000 copies were taken to the newspaper distributor's premises and shredded.

When this was revealed, the Irish establishment was red-faced. Three months earlier, they were embarrassed internationally by the notorious X Case, in which the Attorney General got an injunction to stop a 14-year old pregnant rape victim from going to England for an abortion. The AG was enforcing the Eighth Amendment.

That November, two new clauses were inserted in the Constitution - the 13th and 14th Amendments. One clause prevents politicians, judges or servants of the state from doing anything to stop women getting information about abortion facilities abroad.

The other clause prevents politicians, judges or servants of the state from acting to prevent any woman from travelling abroad for an abortion.

It's still bemusing that a modern state put in place Constitutional barriers specifically designed to prevent its politicians, judges and public servants from interfering with the abortion trail to a neighbouring jurisdiction.

Three Catholic bishops spoke against the clauses - the rest said they were OK with a vote either way.

And, not once, in the 26 years since then have the supposed "pro-life" forces moved against those Amendments. Not one TD or Senator, loud in their "pro-life" pieties, has even verbally attacked those clauses, let alone sought to repeal them.

And no political party, group or "Institute" has campaigned to repeal the 13th and 14 Amendments.

Fianna Fail's Mary Butler is an outspoken "pro-life" TD whose anti-abortion beliefs are transparently genuine and sincere. Just two weeks ago, she was asked on Prime Time what she would say to the mother of a 14-year-old pregnant rape victim.

"I certainly, personally, wouldn't force her" [to see the pregnancy through], Mary Butler said. "If her mother decides she wants to take her daughter for an abortion, that's her decision... I know they have to go to England..."

Ms Butler seemed to think it completely unremarkable that there are abortion facilities available to Irish women - well-known, well-signposted and Constitutionally protected.

This outsourcing is now part of the infrastructure. It's recognised by the allegedly "pro-life" forces and it acts as a safety valve, reducing the pressure for abortion facilities here.

And it allows the extreme wing of "pro-life" forces to strike moral poses. It allows them to dismiss everyone who requests the right to an abortion in Ireland, from Savita Halappanavar to Amnesty Ireland, as an agent of "a culture of death".

One current No poster is blunt: "Don't bring this to Ireland". Yes, we must keep Irish abortions where they belong - in England.

Abortion is a troubling issue, and the women of Ireland do not treat it frivolously. Like Carol Nolan TD, the women of Ireland like to act on their conscience and beliefs. To deny them this, we tolerate a nod and wink culture that tells us to nip across the road and use the neighbour's facilities.

Sunday Independent

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