Trying to do the least harm
Three days of public hearings at Leinster House have clarified some of the issues the Government will have to tackle in legislating for the Supreme Court judgment in the X case. The calm and measured nature of the exchanges and an absence of rancour were welcome. This civilised approach did not disguise yawning gaps between the extremes and the middle ground on whether, or in what circumstances, deliberate destruction of a foetus should be permitted. The exercise will have helped to inform the public on the medical, legal and ethical complexities involved and calmed FG backbench nerves.
Some members of the Oireachtas health committee were unhappy their function had been limited to questioning interested parties and reporting back to Government, rather than making recommendations. They will have an opportunity to make their personal positions known when the heads of a Government Bill are published before Easter. In the meantime, they can be satisfied by the efficient and non-confrontational manner of the hearings. The political process was presented in a positive light.
The Government is grappling with past mistakes. Advice by two attorneys general in advance of the 1983 referendum – that the initiative was flawed and unwise – has been vindicated. In spite of that, demands for a further referendum that would wind the clock back to those days have been made. The Catholic Church spokesman Bishop Christopher Jones advocated such an approach even as he insisted, against the advice of medical experts, that legislation was not required to ensure a woman receives life-saving treatment during pregnancy.
Distrust has been a central element of this sorry affair. It was distrust of the EU and of Irish politicians that led, initially, to demands for a constitutional amendment that would – in line with Catholic Church teaching – ban deliberate abortion in all circumstances. Distrust of the judiciary and of suicidal women arose from the Supreme Court ruling in the X case and brought two failed referendum attempts to overturn that judgment. Distrust of the medical profession has now emerged because doctors admit that circumstances exist where deliberate abortion is necessary to save the life of a mother. Politicians are under pressure and the duty of government to uphold the Constitution is being challenged. The hearings have pointed to an emerging consensus; that a combination of legislation with regulations represents the way forward.
While stating its position the Catholic Church has moderated its language. Legislation was not equated with “the first step towards a culture of death”. That change goes some way towards respecting the views of others. In a democratic society, legislators have a duty to seek a consensus that does the least wrong, or the least harm, rather than impose a specific form of morality.