Facing up to responsibilities
After 20 years of procrastination, an Irish government has finally faced up to its Constitutional responsibilities and will legislate for the Supreme Court judgment in the X case. The nature of that decision will disappoint deeply-committed groups on both sides of the issue, involving as it does a commitment to provide for abortion in limited circumstances while specifying the medical requirements under which a termination can take place. It is, however, the minimum response required by the situation and it should be welcomed.
Details of the Government’s intentions will not become known for months and legislation may not be passed before next summer. In the meantime, the Oireachtas Committee on Health will meet in January to consider those grey areas – involving medical judgment and procedures – that, for instance, may have contributed to the death of Savita Halappanavar. The results of an inquiry into her death in Galway in October are still awaited. The committee may also consider how a suicide threat, as provided for by the Supreme Court judgment, could be accommodated.
Opinion within the Fine Gael parliamentary party is divided on the issue and its members have been subjected to intensive lobbying by anti-abortion groups. Those divisions surfaced in the Dáil where Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald criticised those who condemned women who sought an abortion on the grounds of suicide as “duplicitous and untrustworthy”. At the same time, a number of her party colleagues expressed deep reservations about a suicide provision. From the Labour Party perspective, Minister of State Kathleen Lynch believes the Government’s response is so narrow the issue will have to be revisited within a matter of years.
Extreme positions adopted during the five referendum campaigns since 1983 have, unfortunately, already been reoccupied. Groups that reject the Supreme Court ruling now confront those who advocate abortion in cases where both the life and the health of the mother are at risk. For some, the wishes of the pregnant women are paramount and they point to the tens of thousands who are forced to leave this country for abortions in Britain every year. Some would allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality, while others favour intervention in all life-threatening situations affecting the mother.
The four Catholic archbishops have made clear their unambiguous opposition to the Government’s proposal, warning it could pave the way for “the direct and intentional killing of unborn children”. The churches have a legitimate and important role to play in the debate about abortion but like other public figures, members of the hierarchy have a responsibility to encourage a calm and respectful tone.