Sunday 16 June 2019

North could show us way on dealing with fatal foetal abnormalities

Stock photo
Stock photo
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

In 2002 when I arrived on the steps of a Northern Ireland hospital and was met by a kindly nurse, 'lucky' was not the word that sprang to mind. In hindsight, I was fortunate. I was carrying a dead foetus and its twin, which would not survive outside the womb. Two other hospitals had confirmed the fatal foetal abnormality.

I was fortunate, because a year later, Northern Ireland passed a law forbidding termination for medical reasons - even for fatal foetal abnormality.

Though I had encountered inhuman and degrading treatment in the south, having been exiled to deal with the tragedy, I received compassionate care and consideration in Northern Ireland. The nursing staff sent me home with a tiny coffin, baby blankets and a set of footprints. In other words, the sad outcome was treated with dignity and respect.

Since 2003, women in Northern Ireland, like those in the south, have had to make the awful journey to a strange hospital elsewhere in the UK, after being given the sad news of their fatal foetal abnormality.

But yesterday, in an intelligent response to the challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Mr Justice Horner told Belfast High Court: "In the circumstances, given this issue is unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future, and the entitlement of citizens of Northern Ireland to have their Convention rights protected by the courts, I conclude that the Article Eight rights of women in Northern Ireland who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities or who are pregnant as a result of sexual crime are breached by the impugned provisions."

NI Justice Minister David Ford, had, in the past, suggested amending the law to allow for termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. But Judge Horner's judgment goes further.  

The NI Attorney General, John Larkin, yesterday announced he was "profoundly disappointed" with the ruling and was considering an appeal.

Down South, politicians often forget they are elected to represent the people. Irish citizens have not been allowed a clear vote on this issue - each time there has been a referendum, it is convoluted in tangled verbiage.

Days before the Northern Ireland ruling, Taoiseach Enda Kenny uttered vague indications about a convention on the issue. His comments were non-committal, and made in the build-up to a spring election.

Yesterday, on her radio show, Marian Finucane was obliged to bring up the topic of abortion due to the headlines on the Taoiseach's announcement. Marian told her listeners that if a referendum was called she would put in for annual leave, such was her horror at having to listen to both sides again. So much for public service broadcasting.

Labour TD for Clare, Michael McNamara, a barrister, has produced a bill specifically addressing termination for fatal foetal abnormality. It is unlikely to see the light of day, being too narrowly focused and only covering anencephaly.

In 2007, a 17-year-old woman carrying an anencephalic foetus (Miss D), was prevented by the HSE from travelling to the UK for a termination. Her case was taken to the High Court. Miss D was not allowed to have her treatment here, and was "allowed by the court" to go to a strange hospital overseas in very unhappy circumstances.

The case of Miss D should not have gone that way.

The Irish State argued in my case at the European Court of Human Rights, that the definition of an unborn without the ability to be 'born' had not been tested in our courts, and that I should have sought a remedy in court while pregnant.

The private medical emergency that fatal foetal abnormality presents is controlled from the top by politicians of all parties and their personal interests.

It is their lack of conviction and courage that imposes this torture on women, otherwise we would have had a referendum by now.

Bewildering and morbid cases have come before the courts, highlighting the absurdity of the legislation in this area. Miss Y, a refugee victim of terrorist rape, was forced to continue her pregnancy after seeking an intervention under the conditions of our Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act.

Then comes the Constitution; the Eighth Amendment from 1983 is invoked at every turn. Alongside the Constitution are the interests of the Catholic clergy, the patriarchy determined to control women's bodies.

Supporting the weight of that tyranny are the fundamental ideologists. Squashed beneath them are the medical experts, the obstetricians and gynaecologists, whose doctor-patient relationship is undermined by all of the above.

Invisible, below this inhuman treatment, is the woman, her mental and physical health of absolutely no interest to anyone beyond her doctor, the one with his hands tied.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar is hedging weakly on this issue, stalling for time. With all due respect to him and his fellow politicians, we don't need men deciding on women's health. That is purely for doctors.

Developments in Northern Ireland will be very interesting to watch.

Deirdre Conroy took a case against Ireland for breach of human rights (D v Ireland 2006)

Irish Independent

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