Women will still face injustice even if abortion law introduced
The expert group report on abortion arose from a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 by three women, alleging that restrictions on abortion in Ireland were in breach of their human rights.
One of the women was in acute distress. She lived in poverty and had four children already, all of whom were in care. She was attempting to reunite her family when she became pregnant accidentally. She felt she could not possibly cope with a fifth child, nor with the pregnancy. She could not get an abortion in Ireland, where, irrespective of her circumstances, she risked penal servitude for life. She went to Britain, where she had an abortion.
Another of the three women had been in treatment for cancer for three years and she too became pregnant unintentionally. Medical tests were contraindicated during the early stage of her pregnancy. She was unable to get clear medical advice and feared that her pregnancy would lead to a recurrence of her cancer. She, too, felt obliged to go to Britain for an abortion. The third case was less clear-cut.
The third and first cases were dismissed on technical grounds but on the case concerning the woman with cancer, it was found that the absence of clear guidelines in Ireland for when abortion was permissible was a breach of human rights. It was this ruling which led to the expert group report published yesterday.
The prohibition of abortion essentially compels women to give their bodies for the sustenance of other human beings (yes innocent and very vulnerable human beings), independently of their wishes and needs, and independently even of whether they consented to becoming pregnant.
The most striking aspect of the report is the chronology of how male-dominated institutions or committees (parliaments, courts, expert groups) have devised ways to control women in the use of their bodies. The Westminster parliament, then exclusively male, passed the Offences Against the Persons Act in 1861 (151 years ago) making it an offence, punishable by penal servitude for life, to end a pregnancy. This Act remains in force in Ireland today and successive Irish parliaments have failed or refused to amend it.
In the Health (Family Planning) Act of 1979, the 1861 prohibition on abortion was reiterated. Then both Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey opportunistically acceded to a lobby group to incorporate the legislative ban into the Constitution.
There followed cases in which the Supreme Court imposed bans, in 1986 and 1989, on providing information here on abortion services elsewhere, or information encouraging or facilitating abortion. Ireland got into a tangle at EU level in 1992, first by demanding a protocol to the Treaty on the European Union that nothing in EU law would interfere with the laws on abortion in Ireland. Then, a few months later, after the treaty had been agreed, it issued a meaningless declaration, stating essentially that the protocol didn’t really mean what it said.