State feigns ignorance on abortions in its hospitals
The Republic declines to collect statistics and uses its information technology to ensure no one else can either, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
HOW DO you make a problem go away? The Irish answer, of course, is to pretend it doesn’t exist. But in the age of statistics, there is a special refinement to this strategy – make sure it doesn’t show up in the numbers.
If you count something, it becomes real and if it becomes real you might have to do something about it. Thus, for example, the system didn’t count the number of children who died in the care of the State until it was forced to do so.
Here’s something else the system absolutely refuses to count: the number of abortions carried out within the State. It’s not a big number (based on Northern Ireland figures, a rough estimate would be about 120 a year) but it matters because it encapsulates the need to legislate on the basis of the X case.
And it’s a bloody awkward number. It adds up to a fact that is not supposed to be a fact: abortions are legal in the Republic in certain (very restrictive) circumstances and they are being performed, probably more than twice a week.
This is a tricky business – if we acknowledge this fact, we have to do something about it, like, for instance, clarifying for women and their doctors the precise circumstances in which these abortions can, and cannot, take place. And once we do that, Holy Ireland vanishes in a puff of incense – we are no longer that special place where abortion is unthinkable.
So how do you hide these numbers in a health system where everything is supposed to be recorded?
Here we encounter an old friend, the Irish variation on Donald Rumsfeld’s famous distinctions – the unknown known. You have to positively decide not to know the awkward fact. And, as we shall see, the Irish system has taken this determination very far – it has programmed its computers so that they literally cannot count abortions in Irish hospitals.
That such abortions take place is not seriously in dispute. Anti-abortion groups, for their own reasons, insist that they not be called abortions. But this insistence has no legal or medical standing. Before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Government argued that, in fact, there is no problem with obtaining a “lawful abortion” in Ireland: “the procedure for obtaining a lawful abortion in Ireland was clear. The decision was made, like any other major medical matter, by a patient in consultation with her doctor.”
So the official position is that abortion is clearly lawful in Ireland when it is necessary to save a woman’s life.