Decisive change in the abortion debate
There is much we do not know about the medical care Savita Halappanavar received. It is as yet unclear whether a lack of legal clarity contributed in any way to the circumstances of her death.
We have her husband’s harrowing account of her last days, and it is clear the couple endured a horrendous ordeal. The tragedy has devastated us all.
The nature and extent of modern media and the emotions that abortion engenders mean that even before the full facts are established Ms Halappanavar’s tragedy has generated much national and international coverage. Some of it has been careful and sympathetic; and much of it has been intemperate, intolerant and politicised.
The extent of the misinformation and caricature was reflected in a clip from an Indian radio station, played on RTÉ, in which a newscaster spoke of Savita being left to die because of the abortion laws of “devoutly Catholic Ireland”.
Ireland has not been a devoutly Catholic country for more than quarter of a century. Of course our abortion laws are shaped by our original Catholic culture but so too, once, were our laws on divorce, contraception and homosexuality. Our abortion laws have not followed the same pattern as other social issues because the overwhelming majority of Irish people do not favour abortion being generally available.
Years of sluggishness
This week there has been much justified criticism of successive governments for failing to clarify legal issues on abortion. However, the bald suggestion that there have been 20 years of inaction is simplistic and inaccurate. The pattern could be more correctly described as spurts of intense activity followed by years of acute sluggishness.
This newspaper first reported the details of the X case in February 1992. Its implications convulsed our politics for months. Following months of deliberation, the then Reynolds government put three amendments to the people in November 1992.
Two of these – on freedom to travel and on freedom of information – were passed by a margin of two to one. The third proposal, providing that the prohibition on abortion would apply even when a mother was suicidal, was defeated by the same margin.
In the wake of this, the new Fianna Fáil-Labour government and then the Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left government that replaced it chose to not enact legislation and simply to ignore the issue.
When Bertie Ahern became taoiseach in 1997 he asked an all-party committee on the Constitution to examine the subject of the X case. The committee held months of public hearings, covering ground presumably revisited by the current expert group. On foot of the deliberations the Ahern government put a further referendum proposal to the people in 2002.