Thursday, 22 November 2012

Ireland's Abortion Legislation Mess

It is not an easy thing to say, particularly to say publicly in a forum like this for the whole world to read. But it is the way I have been feeling for the past week or so.

At the moment, I am ashamed to be Irish.

On November 14, the Irish Times published an article telling the story of Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital on October 28. The immediate cause of death was septicaemia, more commonly known as blood poisoning, resulting from the miscarriage of a foetus in the 17th week of pregnancy.

A tragedy. Something which commonly happened a hundred years ago, which – thankfully – seldom happens now, at least in developed countries with a generally well functioning health system.

The massive septicaemia was able to take hold because Savita spent three days in a condition of cervical dilation with amniotic fluid leaking. There is an overwhelming medical consensus that in such a situation the foetus is not viable and will inevitably die. The basic medical procedure is, therefore, to terminate the pregnancy as quickly as possible in order to avoid the kind of complication which killed Savita. As a medical professional (a dentist), Savita was well aware of this and repeatedly over the three days begged that the birth be induced so that her life could be saved – a procedure which is, technically, an abortion. According to her husband, she was told that this was not possible, because Ireland was “a Catholic country.” Savita spent three days in great pain until the foetal heartbeat finally ceased without outside assistance and the dead foetus was removed. In all probability, the septicaemia had gained such a hold during this time that it was impossible to combat.

In all probability, Savita need not have died.

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland (well, at least since 1867). Around thirty years ago, a number of right-wing Catholics decided that this was not enough. They argued that there was a danger that the elected politicians might some day decide to change the law, that, as they saw it, the right to life of the unborn child needed to be copper-fastened in the Irish constitution. In Ireland, the constitution cannot be changed by parliament; any amendment must be approved by a popular vote. A well-orchestrated public campaign began.

I remember it well; it was extremely sophisticated and very nasty. Anyone who expressed doubts about the wisdom of such a course was immediately accused of being pro-abortion, politicians were put under pressure, questions of the wisdom of trying to constitutionally regulate such a complex area of law, morality and religious belief were swept aside. Though I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church at the time, I remember feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing; even leaving aside my (perhaps for a “professional” Catholic unusual) personal doubts about the moral clarity of a blanket condemnation of abortion, and my deep reluctance as a man to take a definitive position on something which I regarded as really being a women’s issue, I felt that changing the constitution was no way to deal with the subject.

I voted against the amendment. Not that it mattered – it was passed by a two-thirds majority. Four years after the pope had come to visit, the Irish people felt a need to express how Catholic they were. The fact that any Irish woman who had the courage, the necessary information (and the money) could easily travel to Britain to have an abortion was generally known, accepted, disapproved of, ignored, and conveniently forgotten. Holy Catholic Ireland had won a famous victory against the menacing forces of godless international liberal left-wing secularism.

Nine years later that victory came back to haunt the self-proclaimed “pro-lifers.” The wording of the eighth amendment had been framed to try to comprehensively express Catholic teaching in a positive formulation:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” (Irish Constitution, Article 40.3.3°)

The parents of a 14 year old girl who had been raped by a neighbour planned to take their daughter to England for an abortion (the so called X case). Their principle reason for this was because the victim had threatened suicide should she be forced to give birth to the child. Before going to England, the authorities were asked whether DNA from the aborted foetus could be used as evidence against the accused rapist. The state applied for a court injunction to prevent the girl from leaving the country, the issue quickly landed before the Supreme Court, which ruled that it was constitutionally permissible for the girl to obtain an abortion as the danger of suicide constituted a threat to her life and so was a case which fell under the category of “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” Ironically, the danger of the amendment actually providing a constitutional ground for abortion in certain circumstances had been pointed out by its opponents during the campaign leading up to the referendum (among others by Alan Shatter, who is now the Irish Minister for Justice), but this opinion had been dismissed by its proponents. (In the event, the girl had a miscarriage before she could travel to England, the rapist was subsequently convicted.)

Justicia, ironically, is female
In a wider context, the eighth amendment, the X case, two further attempted (and rejected) “pro-life” amendments, as well as a number of other cases taken through the courts all the way to Europe, can all be seen as part of an ongoing transition of values in Ireland, particularly with regard to the waning influence of the Catholic Church in the country. But this provides only part of the background to Savita’s tragic and scandalous death a few weeks ago.

In the course of the past twenty years, the judges in the Irish Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights have been explicitly critical of the failure of the Irish Dáil (parliament) to legislate concretely for the whole area of the termination of pregnancies, even within the extremely limited circumstances they have defined as existing according to the eighth amendment to the constitution following the X Case. The judges have pointed out that it is their job to interpret the law; it is the duty of legislators to make it, to give practical form to the consequences of the interpretations provided by the courts. For twenty years now Irish governments (containing every significant political party in the state with the exception of Sinn Fein [the radical left-wing party which has historically been the political wing of the IRA] in one coalition or another) have frequently promised action and done … nothing.

As a result, doctors, counsellors, and other care professionals have no clear legal guidelines when it comes to dealing with specific situations. It is possible that the doctors in Savita’s case were reluctant to terminate the hopeless pregnancy because they could not be sure that they might be acting illegally and thus exposing themselves to possible (however unlikely) judicial consequences. This is all the more ironic, given that that the termination of her pregnancy could even possibly be justified by a line of argument following traditional Catholic moral philosophy using the Principle of Double Effect (a line of reasoning which has always struck me as being just a little too clever; casuistry, in other words).

Whatever. Why have Irish politicians failed to legislate to regulate such cases, to provide legal certainty for all involved? There are two possible reasons, both reprehensible.

It may be that they are just indifferent. The situation of pregnant women with health or serious mental conflict issues just isn’t important enough for them.

Or, more deeply, perhaps they are simply afraid. Afraid of the negative image of them the vituperative groups calling themselves “pro-life” are capable of and expert in projecting of them. Any politician who supports any legislation to legalise abortion, even in the most limited of cases, will be open to be portrayed as “anti-life,” “murderer,” promiscuous, irreligious, anti-Catholic, even, somehow, not truly Irish. An exhibition of honesty and backbone might well be toxic at the ballot-box, especially if the well-organised and well-funded (there are reasons to believe that large sums flow from the religious right-wing in the USA) anti-abortion groups decide to run negative campaigns against them.

The horrible thing about it is that they may be right. I have a sneaking fear that large numbers of my compatriots are still deeply influenced by a self-righteous, holier-than-thou picture of themselves as “pro-lifers,” secure in a reality-denying mindset made possible by the fact that any woman who really wants an abortion can easily go to godless England and get it there. And we won’t talk about it honestly. A nasty Irish version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Maybe I am too pessimistic. Maybe the erosion of that particular narrow-minded hypocritical version of Catholicism which dominated Ireland for a large part of the past century has finally reached a stage where my countrywomen and men are finally prepared to be honest with themselves, to face up to hard truths and harder realities about their collective responsibility for the society they want to make for themselves in a world in which moral opinions about the rights and wrongs of what people do (especially in the whole complex area of relationships, sex and reproduction) are informed more by humility, tolerance, compassion and honest doubt than simplistic expressions of religiously grounded infallibility.

There are all sorts of things I could write here about the difficult question of abortion. About the women I know who have had one and have told me about it. About the agonising they went through concerning their decision, both before and after. About serious moral arguments in favour of abortion. About the dangers of black-and-white absolutist arguments and the use of horrible emotive language and images to browbeat those who may not agree with you. About the fundamental truth that women become pregnant and men can’t and that, therefore, this is one issue where women should be leading the discussions and decisions on the subject and men should be playing a subordinate role.

But precisely because this is primarily a women’s issue, I, as a man, won’t go into any of these points more deeply here. I will only hope that the Irish will become more honest with themselves, that their politicians will face up to their responsibilities and at least legislate for the very limited, specific cases of abortion allowed by the present constitution. Of course, ideally I would like to see a more general debate leading to the replacement of that misbegotten 1983 amendment to the constitution, but I honestly don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.

But Savita’s case may just have started a ball rolling. The pressure of public opinion, both within Ireland and worldwide, will probably twist the politicians’ arms enough to make them legislate for cases like hers. Then this beautiful, vibrant woman won’t have died completely in vain.

And perhaps then, my feeling of shame at being Irish will start to fade.

This is not a great version of the song, but the Boomtown Rats' music is as inaccessible on YouTube as that of Bob Dylan - at least here in Germany. But it really did have to be this song!

Images retrieved from:


  1. Test. Checking to see if comments work.

    1. +Gina Duarte : Comments apparently working for me. But then, it's my blog! :-)

  2. I shook y head in disbelief when I saw the story break. For 20 years Irish governments have had their heads in the sand.

    I was in Ireland when the debate was going on re the 9th amendment and I couldn't believe the reactionary rubbish I was hearing... welI was 20 and my views were rather more strident then.

    Holy Ireland has taken a huge eating since then but I wonder how divisive even a minor legislative change would be even today

  3. It's a mad situation. One can hardly be 'pro-abortion' yet how can anyone deny such to a rape victim and so on - or any woman deciding she wants one? In vitro fertilisation brings even hardly moral judgement calls. Here one may have fertilised 6 eggs and only be able to implant one. I know what my practical solution is - but it isn't arrived at by clear moral reasoning or law.

  4. Another excellent essay, Francis, one I've read before but haven't commented on until now. I think there's a tendency to view anyone pro choice as actively wanting more abortions carried out, which is nonsense. Nobody advocates abortion (nobody taken seriously anyway) and we would all be more comfortable if they didn't happen. But they do for various reasons - the world isn't perfect and people aren't perfect but the whole debate smacks of the religious right imposing their morality on everyone else.


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