Decisive change in the abortion debate

Sat, Nov 17, 2012, 00:00

There is much we do not know about the medical care Savita Halappanavar received. It is as yet unclear whether a lack of legal clarity contributed in any way to the circumstances of her death.

We have her husband’s harrowing account of her last days, and it is clear the couple endured a horrendous ordeal. The tragedy has devastated us all.

The nature and extent of modern media and the emotions that abortion engenders mean that even before the full facts are established Ms Halappanavar’s tragedy has generated much national and international coverage. Some of it has been careful and sympathetic; and much of it has been intemperate, intolerant and politicised.

The extent of the misinformation and caricature was reflected in a clip from an Indian radio station, played on RTÉ, in which a newscaster spoke of Savita being left to die because of the abortion laws of “devoutly Catholic Ireland”.

Ireland has not been a devoutly Catholic country for more than quarter of a century. Of course our abortion laws are shaped by our original Catholic culture but so too, once, were our laws on divorce, contraception and homosexuality. Our abortion laws have not followed the same pattern as other social issues because the overwhelming majority of Irish people do not favour abortion being generally available.

Years of sluggishness

This week there has been much justified criticism of successive governments for failing to clarify legal issues on abortion. However, the bald suggestion that there have been 20 years of inaction is simplistic and inaccurate. The pattern could be more correctly described as spurts of intense activity followed by years of acute sluggishness.

This newspaper first reported the details of the X case in February 1992. Its implications convulsed our politics for months. Following months of deliberation, the then Reynolds government put three amendments to the people in November 1992.

Two of these – on freedom to travel and on freedom of information – were passed by a margin of two to one. The third proposal, providing that the prohibition on abortion would apply even when a mother was suicidal, was defeated by the same margin.

In the wake of this, the new Fianna Fáil-Labour government and then the Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left government that replaced it chose to not enact legislation and simply to ignore the issue.

When Bertie Ahern became taoiseach in 1997 he asked an all-party committee on the Constitution to examine the subject of the X case. The committee held months of public hearings, covering ground presumably revisited by the current expert group. On foot of the deliberations the Ahern government put a further referendum proposal to the people in 2002.

That amendment was accompanied by the publication of detailed legislation to be embedded in the Constitution as a means of assuaging fears that our abortion laws could be liberalised without reference to the people.

The Ahern proposal was supported by the Progressive Democrats, most of the “pro-life” campaign and the Catholic bishops, but it was opposed by more hardline elements of the “pro-life” cause, and by pro-choice groups, Fine Gael, Labour and smaller parties.

Notwithstanding the scale of the organised opposition to it and the fact that it rowed back on the entitlement to abortion on the grounds of threatened suicide, the proposal came within 10,555 votes of passing on a day when 1.25 million people voted.

Twice bitten by referendums, the FF-PD government and, later, the FF-Green government shied away from the issue.

There has been a marginal shift in public attitude on abortion in recent years. This has arisen from a greater awareness of and sympathy for women who face a threat to their life arising from pregnancy, or whose babies will not survive full-term. Apart from attitudes to these difficult cases, there is no evidence that the majority Irish view on abortion will change much in the short term.

That marginal shift, together with the story of Savita Halappanavar’s death, has changed the context in which the abortion debate in this country can be conducted. The impact of her story makes it almost inevitable that the Government will move, perhaps within months and probably by legislation, to address the need for clarity in our abortion law.

It will do so not necessarily on the basis of the findings of the investigations into her death but because the sympathy for her and her family’s plight, and the coverage engendered at home and abroad, means that, as complex and difficult as it may be, confronting the issues left by the X case has become the easier option for our lawmakers. However, it was always the right thing to do.

A good first step would be for the Government to publish immediately the report of the expert group received by Ministers this week.

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