An unfortunate end to Dáil’s deliberations on the most sensitive of topics
Savita case meant thorny problem could no longer be left aside
Phil Hogan with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. His letter showed all the signs of a careful drafting process. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
One of the low profile but important staffer jobs during the course of any large-scale election campaign is dealing with correspondence from interest groups or individuals on specific policy positions.
Campaigning groups make a point of writing to each of the main parties at election time seeking written clarifications or commitments on particular policies. Usually somebody in the political party’s research and policy unit is given the job of formulating careful responses to each query. Their task in so doing is to ensure that where party policy is clear, it is stated as such but, where it is more nuanced, the reply is worded subtly to avoid alienating any potential voters before polling day while simultaneously avoiding commitments which might come back to haunt the party should it secure a role in government.
The letter from Phil Hogan setting out Fine Gael’s position on abortion during the February 2011 election has all the signs of emanating from such a careful political drafting process.
The letter is just four paragraphs long. The first paragraph contains one sentence which says “Fine Gael is opposed to the legalisation of abortion.” The letter goes on in the next paragraph to promise the establishment of an all-party Oireachtas Committee with access to medical and legal expertise to “consider the implications of the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights”. In the third paragraph Hogan says that Fine Gael representatives on that committee would bring a “clear commitment that woman in pregnancy will receive whatever treatment they require to safeguard their lives and the duty of care to preserve the life of the baby will also be upheld”. The fourth paragraph states Fine Gael’s opposition to research on human embryos.
The letter makes no mention of the X case or of permitting abortion on grounds of a risk to the mother’s life from suicide. Some Fine Gael TDs later described it as a “letter of comfort” furnished to the pro-life movement. On closer reading however it’s clear that while it signalled a pro-life stance, it left Fine Gael with some wriggle room in government.
The Labour Party manifesto by comparison included an express commitment to legislate for the X case. The compromise negotiated between the two parties in their Programme for Government was to establish an expert group on the implications of the European court rulings. Interestingly, the Programme for Government did not include a commitment to legislate for the expert group’s recommendations.
Even though it seems the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar had little if anything to do with lack of legislation, the public response to her story transformed the political context within which government came to deal with the abortion issue. There is every possibility that, on the Fine Gael side at least, there would have been an inclination to let the abortion issue lie but the detail and profile of Savita’s story made legislative change inevitable. It also led to a shift in measured public opinion towards legislating for the X case.