Political cowardice must not obstruct abortion law
OPINION:The Supreme Court ruling of 1992 opened the way to legislate, but ‘conscientious objectors’ could again derail this if FG fails to use the whip, write REBECCA MOYNIHANand JANE HORGAN JONES
FINE GAEL has long-established form in delaying progressive social change while in government by failing to impose a whip on key issues. We are potentially faced with a repeat performance in relation to legislation arising out of the X Case.
In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permissible in the Republic when there was a risk to the life of the mother, which included the risk of suicide. Despite the Irish people twice reaffirming this judgment in subsequent referendums, successive governments have shown little appetite to produce legislation to give effect to this ruling.
Minister for Health James Reilly has given a commitment to do so. But a sizeable group of his Fine Gael Oireachtas colleagues are already voicing their reservations in forthright terms. There are worrying reminders of Fine Gael in the 1970s.
In 1973, the Supreme Court held that there was a constitutional right to marital privacy, which incorporated the right to use contraceptives within marriage. At that time women were entitled to own and use contraceptives, but could not legally obtain them within the State.
In response to this anomaly, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of the day brought forward legislation to regulate the area and allow married couples to obtain contraception in strictly limited circumstances.
However, the Control of Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptives Bill, 1974 was defeated in July of that year after “conscientious objectors” on the government benches were permitted to vote against it without losing the party whip. Described by one TD as “the greatest farce of a free vote of all time”, the electorate was provided with the bizarre vista of the Fine Gael taoiseach and minister for education voting against a government Bill.
Were they serious about the legislation at all, asked an opposition TD in the immediate aftermath of the vote? You would be forgiven for suspecting they were not.
There must be no repetition of this debacle in relation to the X Case legislation. In 2010 the Republic received an embarrassing admonishment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) when it ruled that this State had not given sufficient reason for the delay in legislating for a woman’s constitutional right to access abortion and was therefore in breach of its obligations under the convention.
It is incumbent upon us, and particularly those of us in the Labour Party who have consistently reaffirmed our pro-choice stance, to ensure this is an issue which can no longer be delayed, ignored or fudged.
If the opportunity is missed during this Government’s term, will a woman have to die for us to regret our reticence in dealing with this problem?
The Coalition’s expert group on abortion, set up to advise on the implications of the ECHR judgment, has now delayed its report until the autumn.