Scratching at the surface

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 01:00

The difficult but welcome passage by the Dáil of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill is a landmark in the country’s political history, and a credit to a Government and individual politicians who have honourably been prepared to pay a heavy political price for fulfilling their legislative duty on this difficult issue. Conscience is not the sole prerogative of opponents of the Bill, although they would have us believe it. A balancing of moral imperatives can lead to a conscientious decision that it is right to do one’s duty as a legislator.

That said, that energy expended, are we really now beginning to address the problem? Barely. The Bill was passed as the UK Department of Health published its annual statistics on the numbers of women travelling to England or Wales for an abortion. In 2102, some 3,982 did so while giving their address as the Republic Ireland – in reality the figure is much larger.

Although the department does not provide a breakdown of the grounds for which abortions are performed for Irish residents, a breakdown of the grounds for all UK abortions reveals that one tenth of one per cent of them are performed in cases of what might be termed serious medical emergency – more permissive grounds than the new Irish legislation allows – ie where there is a threat to the life of a woman or “to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health” of a mother-to-be.

The DoH accepts the figure for Irish-resident abortions on such grounds would be of the same order of magnitude – roughly four out of the 3,982. That reality puts the Protection of Life Bill in perspective – it barely scratches the surface of the reality of abortion in Ireland, providing only tiny numbers of women with a possible alternative to the flight to Britain. That trail of misery will continue.

Realistically, moreover, with tight restrictions on proving suicidal intentions, it is unlikely that more than a small handful of what are regarded by the Bill’s opponents as unacceptable “direct abortions” will be performed here annually – a drop in the ocean compared to the reality of continuing exported abortion. We have laboured mightily to produce a mouse.

Nor is the issue now going to go away. The case for abortion when faced by fatal foetal abnormalities has been well made and is arguably not unconstitutional. Polls suggest citizens in significant majorities also now back the idea and are sympathetic to abortion when women are victims of rape or incest.

Although a vocal lobby for such change is likely to continue to press its case, politicians are unlikely to touch what they see as toxic issues – many have only acted now because they believed they were under an imperative to clarify the law following the Supreme Court decision. The courts, however, may not have said their final word.