Friday 14 December 2018

Being a cartoon villain doesn't make Ronan Mullen wrong about everything

The media should subject claims by both sides of the abortion debate to the same scrutiny in the run-up to next year's referendum

Senator Ronan Mullen
Senator Ronan Mullen

Eilis O'Hanlon

When it comes to contentious social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, playing the man rather than the ball has become the dominant form of discourse in Ireland.

Senator Ronan Mullen could readily attest to that. It doesn't matter what he says. He's Ronan Mullen, so anything that comes out of his mouth can be disregarded purely on account of his allegiance to traditional Catholic values.

It happened again last week, when he was, rightly, criticised for comments about Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year-old Indian dentist who tragically died in an Irish hospital in October 2012, 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

Responding to the claim that she wouldn't have died had an abortion been carried out when she requested one, Senator Mullen declared to RTE's Sean O'Rourke: "If there was abortion on demand she wouldn't have been in the hospital because she wouldn't have been pregnant and she wouldn't have been having a miscarriage."

Bizarre. What he meant is any-body's guess. Savita and her husband Praveen's baby was very much wanted when she miscarried. If Mullen merely misspoke, that's understandable on live radio. It happens.

But what did he mean? Nobody knows. The criticism of him as lacking sensitivity in that regard seems fair enough.

But it's been used, as it always is with Catholic conservatives, to dismiss everything else he says as worthless. That includes his view that Savita's death is being exploited by supporters of abortion; and that the Oireachtas committee charged with examining the Eighth Amendment - which gives an equal right to life to a woman and her unborn child - is unfairly slanted towards a pro-choice outcome.

His opponents may not wish him to have the satisfaction of being right, but that doesn't mean he isn't right. As he and independent TD Mattie McGrath have found, the Oireachtas committee has an inbuilt weighting towards pro- choice voices.

Maybe that reflects wider Irish opinion, which has undoubtedly shifted towards a more liberal attitude, with most people wanting the Constitution to change, the only issue being what to replace the Eighth with.

But one can believe that last week's decision by the committee to recommend change of some sort is sensible and long overdue while still acknowledging that the committee's make-up inevitably pushes its workings one way rather than another. Witnesses called to give evidence, likewise, have tended to back up one rather than the other side of the debate, with any robust cross examination of pro-choice witnesses being criticised.

Psychiatrist Patricia O'Casey has already said she will not appear before the committee next week for that reason. Supporters deny that this makes the process "deeply imbalanced", in Casey's words - insisting that doctors are professionals who base their judgments on clinical evidence and so must be treated as objective.

But doctors are not blank slates. They come with ingrained biases and prejudices too. It's only human.

It goes even more so for organisations such as Amnesty International or the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which are - rightly or wrongly is beside the point - heavily one-sided.

As for Mullen's contention that the pro-choice lobby intends to weaponise the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar during the run-up to next year's referendum, that can hardly be in any doubt after last week.

Just as The Irish Times seized on her death and immediately turned it into a parable about how the country's abortion law kills women, so campaigners intend to do the same in an effort to convince voters that, if they don't back more liberal abortion laws, then the blood of vulnerable women will be on their hands.

The aftermath of comments by Peter Boylan, former master of Holles Street Maternity Hospital, who told members that Savita "died as a consequence of the Eighth Amendment", made that abundantly clear - and again, the difficulty is not with what he said.

He was there as an expert witness, with years of experience of dealing with pregnant women in medical crises. Boylan's view is also consistent with the evidence he gave to the 2013 inquest when, as well as being highly critical of the clinical care which Savita received in University Hospital Galway, he declared that, had her request for a termination been acted upon when her sepsis was still manageable, she'd be alive today.

The distinction between what risks a woman's life and health undeniably raises doubts in doctors' minds, which is why the referendum is needed.

If Boylan believes that the Constitution killed Savita, then he is entitled to express that view - but it needs to be weighed against the finding that her cause of death was, in the words of the subsequent HSE report, a "lack of recognition of the gravity of the situation".

Early detection and management of sepsis was identified in all investigations into her death as the key lesson.

To their credit, medical staff in Galway made no attempt to hide behind the Constitution, but took individual and collective responsibility.

Other doctors have made it clear that Boylan's view is merely a personal one, but it was given particular prominence by the Irish media last week regardless of any nuance.

We are repeatedly told that we live in a Trumpian "post-truth" culture, in which facts are whatever you want them to be. Yet pro-choice advocates do the same thing without compunction. That's never more blatant than in the repeated assertion that women in Ireland are at risk of death because of archaic laws, when more women die during pregnancy in the UK, where abortion has been legal since 1967, and where sepsis is the leading cause of death in pregnancy - in 71pc of cases, because of substandard care, mainly a delay in diagnosis, same as Savita.

Other countries with liberal abortion regimes, such as Denmark, have at least as good, and arguably better, maternal mortality rates than Ireland, so it's not the case either, as pro-life campaigners often seem to suggest, that legalising abortion would worsen the situation; in all likelihood, it would have no effect whatsoever.

But the pro-choice claim that abortion would save pregnant women's lives remains just that - a claim. It should be measured against the available evidence, not accepted automatically as gospel truth.

Practically nowhere was Boylan's claim subjected to scrutiny in the Irish media last week.

By turning Savita's death into a campaign slogan, it allows the truth of what actually killed her - and which takes the lives of other women in similar situations - to be brushed under the carpet.

Were you to ask a cross section of ordinary Irish people why Savita died, they would say it was because she was denied an abortion. That is a triumph of pro-choice propaganda.

The Referendum Commission is tasked with ensuring balance between opposing views. The Oireachtas committee hasn't even agreed on what question to put to the Irish people yet - but, if the early days of this campaign are anything to by, the battle for fairness may already be lost.

It's temptingly easy to make cartoon villains out of pro-life advocates such as Ronan Mullen, but what happened to the Voltairian principle of defending someone's right to say things with which we profoundly disagree?

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss