Thursday 12 December 2019

Women in Ireland continue to be fobbed off - even after the UN's stinging rebuke

Amanda Mellett Picture: Steve Humphreys
Amanda Mellett Picture: Steve Humphreys
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Women are waiting. We are being fobbed off, stalled and kept dangling. A United Nations body uses uncompromising language to rebuke our Government over Ireland's strict abortion law. And still we are left waiting.

The Health Minister tells us he is moved by the pain of those affected by the ban. And still we are left waiting. The Justice Minister tells us the UN finding is both stark and serious. And still we are left waiting.

Behind the placatory noises, here's what the administration is really saying to us. Hang on. No hurry. Don't rock the boat. We'll get there. Probably.

But the Government's procrastination on abortion compromises the welfare and human rights of pregnant women. Even when its dithering leads to criticism under the international spotlight, its solution is postponement dressed up as an action plan. Women are told to give it time - lots and lots of time.

Delay number one: wait until the citizens' assembly meets. Except nobody knows exactly when the assembly will convene. And nobody knows who will serve on it. And nobody knows how long it will take to consider the subject.

Delay number two: wait until an Oireachtas committee considers the assembly's recommendations. And then makes some of its own. Except nobody knows how long all of that will take.

Delay number three: wait for a Dáil vote. I say we go straight to the Dáil vote and cut out steps one and two. The current plan is a blueprint for not dealing with abortion, and leaves women in the lurch.

Meanwhile, women and couples - because this affects men, too - continue to travel abroad for a service they ought to be entitled to access at home. We export them as though they are our dirty secrets, instead of fellow citizens in need who deserve suitable arrangements provided by the State.

Ireland's persistent failure to legislate for women to have terminations, if they choose, in cases of serious congenital defects - where the baby will die in the womb or shortly after birth - puts them in an intolerable position. One that is "cruel", "inhuman" and "degrading". That's what the UN Human Rights Committee said on its world platform. Our leaders should hang their heads in shame - not least because there can be no surprise at hearing this public indictment. It is well known.

The UN ruling found that a woman's rights were violated because she had to travel for an abortion, after medical advice indicated the 21-week foetus she was carrying could not survive.

Amanda Mellett showed courage in taking the case, in sharing her private pain, and her fortitude must be matched by Government action.

Deferral is no longer an option. The Coalition must deal in specifics. Are cases of rape and incest to be included in the terms of reference set out for the citizens' assembly, in addition to foetal abnormalities incompatible with life?

Enda Kenny needs to provide more clarity. He has confirmed that if a referendum on the Eighth is recommended by the citizens' assembly, and accepted by the Oireachtas committee, there will be a free vote of TDs.

But there is no sense of urgency, despite what Simon Harris claims. If this matter was being prioritised, we'd have more certainty about the timeline. And it would be happening soon.

A referendum is a must. Currently, Irish law is in conflict with international law and, by doing nothing, the State stands over the contradiction. A referendum cannot guarantee the law would be altered. But the State can argue that it afforded the Irish people an opportunity to express their wishes.

To recap, the Eighth is the 1983 constitutional amendment which gives an embryo and a woman equal status under the law. Since then, a series of fudges has offered nuanced interpretations, so that neither pro-choice nor pro-life supporters are entirely satisfied with it. The best solution is to remove the Eighth and start again, with a debate on what should take its place.

The Eighth no longer reflects the will of the people, and a nuanced view on abortion has developed in the 33 years since the amendment. The Irish public has no appetite for an abortion-on-demand regime, but there is compassion for couples and women caught in dreadful situations.

Amanda Mellett's story is an example. She told how she was not allowed to transport home her baby's remains from England, and the ashes arrived without warning on her doorstep by courier three weeks later.

A significant number of Irish citizens are aghast at the State's failure to provide options for people in her situation to be released from their ordeal. The accusations levelled by the UN body express what at least some (and maybe many) Irish people believe - that it is barbaric to put anyone through an experience like hers.

No one should ever be obliged to have an abortion. But it is wrong to expect a woman to proceed with a pregnancy against her will in cases where the foetus has a condition incompatible with life. Where the decision is reached to terminate, the Eighth intensifies a woman or couple's distress by forcing them overseas.

Of course, there are those who defend the Eighth to the hilt and want no provision for terminations. There is never any mitigation in their view. Such advocates include Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, who has "some difficulty with outside bodies telling us what to do". Outside bodies such as the Vatican, perhaps? Well, he's entitled to his viewpoint and to persuade others to share it if he can. Let's have that referendum and gauge how representative his position might be.

This Government is unlikely to last for a full term. If they do nothing else, its members have an opportunity to make an important contribution on abortion law reform. It wouldn't be the first administration to postpone decisions on this contentious issue. Let the 32nd Dáil, at least, screw its courage to the sticking place.

Women are waiting. How long must we be fobbed off, stalled and kept dangling?

Irish Independent

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