Legislation is the same in its essence as outline in Heads of Bill published in April
Party leaders calculate that measure will be acceptable to sufficient numbers of deputies
Senator Ronan Mullen asserted that last month’s Oireachtas health committee hearings on the abortion issue were run like an “express train”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘An Act to protect human life during pregnancy” is how the Government’s newly published draft legislation describes itself in its opening words, effectively distilling an aspiration that means different things to different people.
The anti-abortion lobby has inevitably attacked the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill as allowing for the first time for the intentional destruction of unborn life. In contrast, pro-choice supporters decry the limitations of the Bill, in particular the fact that it allows for terminations to be carried out in only a limited set of circumstances and only after the woman gets the go-ahead from up to three doctors.
Despite claims of significant changes to the legislation since the heads of the Bill were published last April, the broad thrust of the Bill is as it was several months ago. There is no major change in relation to the two areas of most substantive concern – the provision which allows terminations arising from a suicide risk to the mother and the absence of a gestational time limit.
The fact that the Government has chosen not to change tack is hardly surprising, as it is hemmed in by legal requirements arising from judgments of the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. There is also the commitment on the issue in the programme for government and Labour’s eagerness to achieve change – any change – on the abortion issue.
The crucial factor behind the current dynamic is a political calculus based on the numbers game. The Government has sufficient voting strength to get this through, notwithstanding the doubters on the Fine Gael backbenches. Any stronger medicine would cause the Coalition to fall apart. Ministers are grimly determined to get the issue well out of the way as quickly as possible in advance of local and European elections and the run-in to the next general election. By then the Savita Halappanavar case will be a memory and the new system will be too new to have produced any fresh controversies.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find a strange coincidence in the late-night publication of the legislation and the release of the HSE report on Ms Halappanavar’s death hours later. And you didn’t have to share independent Senator Rónán Mullen’s views generally in order to agree with his assertion that last month’s Oireachtas health committee hearings on the issue were run like an “express train”. Both sides of the abortion hearing had their say at length over the three days of those hearings, leaving the impartial observer with the impression, hardly accidental, that their arguments cancelled each other out.
The Bill, as it makes clear at the outset, covers existing constitutional rights only and does not create any new rights. It does not allow for terminations in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormalities, despite considerable public support for such provisions. If there is a physical threat to a woman’s life, two doctors, one of them an obstetrician, will have to provide certification in order for a termination to go ahead. In a slight change, there is provision for consultation by the doctors with the woman’s GP if she so wishes.
In case of risk of loss of life from suicide, a termination can only proceed after certification by three doctors. Two of these will be psychiatrists and the other an obstetrician, as before.
In what may be a tightening of the rules, one of the psychiatrists will have to have experience of working with women “in respect of pregnancy, childbirth or post-partum care”. Previously, it had been suggested that one of the psychiatrists would have to be a perinatal psychiatrist, but then it was pointed out that there were only three of these in the State. It remains to be seen how many in the profession have the experience now required.
The absence of the gestational time limit has caused unease among many who would otherwise support the Bill, because of the perceived risk that this would allow, however unintentionally, for late abortions. Government Ministers were clear in saying they didn’t have the power to restrict a constitutional right and so it is no surprise that the Bill doesn’t contain any compromise on this issue.
The Bill means women contemplating a termination will be better informed about their options. But are women more likely to wrestle with the new procedures and submit themselves to multiple examinations, or simply continue taking the boat to England? One suspects the latter.
On the other side of the argument, the concern that the suicide clause might open the floodgates to easy abortion, is addressed somewhat by new provisions for regular reporting of the number of procedures carried out and the suspension of facilities in certain circumstances.
For Minister for Health James Reilly to argue that cases of suicidal ideation in pregnancy are rare misses the point, however. It will take only one difficult case to stir the hornet’s nest again, despite the Government’s best hopes. Of course, if this doesn’t happen for a few years yet, won’t it be someone else’s problem?