Minister’s contribution to debate on foetal abnormality was disrespectful to women

87 % are in favour of medical intervention for this condition

Fri, Jul 12, 2013, 01:00

I sympathise with the tongue-tied Dáil Deputies repeating “fatal foetal abnormality” at 3am in the morning. “Lethal chromosomal anomalies incompatible with life” is no easier to comprehend, in reality or otherwise.

During the all-night debate, Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White accused Clare Daly of conveniently supporting an amendment for fatal foetal abnormality now, but omitting it from her own proposed legislation. Her response was that she wasn’t aware of how common it was and had no access to the Attorney General.

It seems nobody was aware of the expulsion of women from Ireland to seek medical intervention for fatal foetal abnormality until I wrote a letter to this paper in February 2002, detailing the malign conditions that prevailed. I’m not suggesting the medical profession was at fault, but all I was told from the obstetrician who gave me the news was “not in this jurisdiction”.

The timing and media interest in the context of the 2002 referendum on the X case brought the fatal foetal abnormality issue into public understanding; I never read or heard one person detract from what I had done. There were women who chose to carry to full term with fatal foetal abnormality, but at least they had a choice. I have been grateful that The Irish Times respected my need for privacy all those years, until I gave up my anonymity at the outcome of the Savita Halappanavar inquest, so that I could reassert the State’s undertaking in D v Ireland, that “remorseless logic” would not be applied to article 40.3.3 in relation to the “unborn” and that interpretation of “unborn” may not be applied to an unviable foetus that has no prospect of being “born”.

When I sought answers as to why the issue wasn’t taken into account in the 2002 referendum wording, the office of the taoiseach’s response was “it is not comprehended at this time”. So, if the expert group was not permitted to raise it at Oireachtas hearings back then, one would think some political courage would have prevailed by now.

Glacial progress
Eleven years later, taking into account two European Court of Human Rights cases taking Ireland to task; Miss D, a 17- year-old carrying a foetus with anencephaly; a group of brave woman who formed Termination for Medical Reasons in Ireland and spoke publicly throughout the last year; and the death of a woman denied termination of a miscarrying foetus and the national overwhelming support, and you would think that this monumental issue would be “comprehended” by now.

Yesterday evening I stood on Kildare Street in the sunshine and quietly watched the protesters on both sides,of all ages and genders. It was all a bit of a sideshow. It is far too complex an issue for grandstanding, especially on the diametrically opposed television panels at night, where one side is particularly focused on the fear and chill factor. I went to listen to some of the debate, thinking there would be a vote by 11pm. And we all know what happened.

It wasn’t until about 2am that amendment 10 was moved and this important issue was debated for over an hour and a half. If I hadn’t heard it myself, I wouldn’t have believed the manipulative political rhetoric used by Minister for Health James Reilly and White against inclusion of fatal foetal abnormality. The first time Daly spoke on the motion, White interrupted her several times. This wasn’t a spat about bank guarantees or a chance for diversion tactics; as she pointed out, it was disrespectful to the women involved for him to use the platform for confrontation.

It was the beginning of White’s hole-digging, which continued when he reminded the House that it was merely the Opposition’s duty to oppose the Government and that the fatal foetal abnormality amendment was such an example.

Rather alarmingly, he went on to say the supporters of the amendment were “partly motivated to derive some political advantage from the situation”. I thought I was hearing things, especially as I know he has visited a constituent in her home recently, a woman who had harrowing fatal foetal abnormality news and had to travel abroad, and advised her that it won’t be included and gave no hope of remedy. His colleague, Kathleen Lynch, was by far the most eloquent and realistic orator. While she appreciated the Bill was lacking in addressing fatal foetal abnormality, she didn’t sideline the issue.

Equally, Róisín Shortall, who will vote against the Bill on the basis of gestational limit, is fully supportive of fatal foetal abnormality legislation

It was Tipperary South TD Séamus Healy who grasped and quoted the D v Ireland decision and offered a clear analysis of the State Counsel’s opinion. Both he and Finian McGrath referred to a manner in which fatal foetal abnormality could be included this time, tested by the Supreme Court and if found unconstitutional excluded while the remainder of the Bill would remain intact. That would then give a clear indication of where the matter stands constitutionally. Because, quite frankly, this Attorney General, like those before her, is not infallible. All law is open to interpretation and this interpretation suits the Government.

John Halligan, Richard Boyd Barrett and Caomhghín Ó Caoláin were respectful and coherent on this issue, with Ó Caoláin thankfully correcting Michael Healy-Rae on his offensive, appalling obfuscating of fatal foetal abnormality.

Lack of interest
When the bell rang for the vote on fatal foetal abnormality, there was a slow trickling of Deputies from around the House; they could have been snoozing on trolleys in the corridors. By 4.58am, with the fatal foetal abnormality issue defeated, the Cathaoirleach was so addled he announced the “amendment was agreed” and then looked a little stumped.

The “floodgates” are already open – in the direction of the UK. I say keep our women at home and limit their trauma. I ask the four Fine Gael TDs in my constituency, even Peter Mathews, to guarantee a remedy to the appalling vista of fatal foetal abnormality in this State.

Olivia Mitchell and Alan Shatter, please ensure it is included on the Seanad referendum and ban all posters. With 87 per cent in favour of medical intervention for fatal foetal abnormality, I don’t think there will be much confusion.

In 2005 Deirdre Conroy took a case to the European Court of Human Rights (D v Ireland) on the State’s prohibition of abortion, specifically in relation to cases of foetal impairment

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