In Abortion in Ireland I gave a brief account of the background to various attempts to make abortion illegal in Ireland in all circumstances by introducing a constitutional right to life for the unborn. These attempts failed when the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was lawful where there was a substantial risk to the life of the mother which could be alleviated by an abortion. Controversially, the Supreme Court included a threat of suicide in the definition of what could constitute a substantial threat to the life of the mother and this position was endorsed by two constitutional referendums (plebiscites) in 1992 and 2002.
However many ambiguities in the law remained, and successive Governments avoided enacting legislation which would clarify the circumstances under which an abortion might be lawful for fear of incurring the wrath of the Catholic Church. This ambiguity was highlighted when Savita Halappanavar died of obstetric sepsis having been refused an abortion, which, according to the expert testimony of Obstetrician Prof Peter Boylan at the inquest, could have prevented her death. There were undoubtedly other factors which also contributed to her death - a delayed diagnosis and a failure to act on information in a timely manner, but the central problem was that her condition had become terminal by the time her doctors had concluded that her life was substantially at risk and that an abortion would be legally permissible.
Now the Government is finally publishing draft legislation (PDF)to codify the very restrictive circumstances in which an abortion is legal, and the forced pregnancy advocates are once again out in force arguing that abortion is never a treatment for suicidal ideation and that allowing the threat of suicide to be included in the grounds for an abortion will open the floodgates to what they describe as "abortion on demand". The Catholic Bishops - in a final attempt to remain relevant and cling on to some political power in Ireland - have beenranting and raving that any politician who supports the legislation is endangering their immortal soul. However as the above opinion poll demonstrates, they have lost the support of the vast majority of their adherents who support the proposals of an otherwise unpopular Government by a margin of 75% to 14% and who would also support a much wider legal definition of when abortion should be allowed.
Voters were also asked if abortion should be permitted in six specified circumstances. 89 per cent said it should be allowed where a woman’s life is at risk.
Asked if abortion should be permitted in cases where the foetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb, 83 per cent said it should.
Some 81 per cent said abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or abuse, while 78 per cent were in favour in cases where a woman’s health is at risk.
Asked if abortion should be allowed where a woman is threatening suicide 52 per cent said Yes, 29 per cent said No and 19 per cent had no opinion.
Finally, when asked if abortion should be permitted where a woman deems it to be in her best interest, 46 per cent said it should not,
39 per cent said it should and 15 per cent had no opinion.
Even though the legislation is very minimalist and restricted to providing clarity to the Supreme Court ruling in the X Case (1992), the passions aroused are typically apocalyptic:
Government to publish abortion legislation this evening
Mr Kenny told the Dáil he acknowledged the issue was sensitive but defended his position. "I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer. I'm going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies. I'm getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the system and it's not confined to me".
He said he did not agree with many of the statements that had been made.
Mr Kenny said his job as Taoiseach "is not confined to any sector of the people, it is for all the people. Therefore I am proud to stand here as a public representative, who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I am a Taoiseach for all the people and that's my job".
His statement is in stark contrast to those of a former Fine Gael Taoiseach (Prime Minister)
On coming into office in 1948 the first inter-party government, led byJohn Costello, sent a message to the then pontiff stating: "On the occasion of our assumption of office and of the first Cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire to repose at the feet of your Holiness the assurance of our filial and of our devotion to your August Person, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ, and to strive for the attainment of the social order in Ireland based on Christian principles."
In 1950 the then minister for health,Noel Browne, sought to introduce a mother-and-child scheme which had the following features: a free, non means-tested medical scheme for all mothers in respect of motherhood and children (children up to the age of 16); this to be provided in the main by dispensary doctors; the doctors would keep records of the illnesses of their patients; and the doctors would give health guidance to the mothers and children. The bishops objected in principle to the free-for-all scheme and to the proposal that doctors would provide health guidance on the grounds that this might result in doctors giving guidance on birth control and abortion. The government capitulated.
Costello, in the ensuing Dáil debate, said: "I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so . . . There will be no flouting of the authority of the bishops in the matter of Catholic social or moral teaching." The minister for external affairs, leader of one of the coalition parties and former leader of the IRA, Seán McBride, said: "Those of us in this House who are Catholics, and all of us in the government who are Catholics, are, as such of course, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our church and our hierarchy". Noel Browne said: "I, as a Catholic, accept unequivocally and unreservedly the view of the hierarchy on this matter."
Little wonder that Northern Ireland Unionists considered any prospect of Irish Unification as the prospect of being ruled by Rome and sought to reinforce their suppression of Catholic Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
But let us be clear: This is a very minor piece of legislation providing clarity and regulatory effect to a previous Supreme Court ruling and two referendums which will permit an abortion only in very limited circumstances where the life of the mother is at risk. All the medical experts testifying at public hearings in Parliament agreed that such circumstances are very rare. The vast majority of Irish women will continue to travel to Britain to have an abortion in other circumstances. About 150,000 have done so in the past 30 years.
Indeed even those who might qualify for an abortion in Ireland under this proposed legislation (perhaps on the grounds of suicide) may wish to avoid the very rigorous medical and psychiatric scrutiny they will be subjected to should they seek an abortion in Ireland. It is even conceivable that a psychiatrically ill women feeling suicidal and requesting an abortion could be forcibly detained in an Irish hospital under the provisions of the 2001 Mental Health Act and thus prevented from traveling to have an abortion in Britain. A women in such a position would be well advised to be careful about which doctor she went to, but unfortunately the doctors who would make such decisions do not always advertise their "pro-life" moral or religious positions.
So we will, as usual, continue to export the vast majority of our "crisis" pregnancy issues to Britain. So why all the fuss? The fuss is primarily political and not really about abortion at all. Abortion is but the battleground chosen by the Catholic Bishops to try to shore up their increasingly marginal position in Irish political and social life. It is a power struggle with the forces of secularism and evil as they see it. Nobody ever "wants" an abortion. It is an awful choice sometimes forced onto people by awful circumstances, and the Catholic Church is seeking to exploit this by branding all who oppose their position as promoting a culture of death in Irish society. But it is also possible their strategy has back-fired: Not only have their own adherents rejected their leadership, but even those who might be personally opposed to abortion have to ask themselves whether they really want to go back to the days of Rome rule in Ireland.
In the end it is about rejecting theocracy and the rank hypocrisy of the Catholic Hierarchy which spent most of the last few decades protecting child abusers from the law. That they should now seek to present themselves as the prime defenders and representatives "of the unborn" must rank as the very definition of hypocrisy and chutzpah on a biblical scale.