Legislating for abortion

Thu, Apr 19, 2012, 01:00

IN THIS 20th anniversary of the X case, it is a sorry indictment of our legislature’s inability to deal with abortion that a Private Members’ Bill should be seen as necessary to vindicate rights established by the Supreme Court two decades ago.

The failure to legislate for abortion when the life of a mother is under physical or mental threat eventually led the European Court of Human Rights to rule against Ireland in the A,B,C case (2010) and to the belated establishment of an expert group by the current Government to report in June on implementing the court’s ruling.

The Government will no doubt argue the group’s remit makes the introduction last night in the Dáil by TDs Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Mick Wallace of a Bill to implement the X case Supreme Court decision unnecessary. That might be a more plausible case if one was confident its findings would be quickly enacted – experience suggests otherwise.

But it is also to be hoped that the expert group will go beyond the “threat to the life of the mother” test of the X Case to look at issues raised by cases like those of Michelle Harte in 2010, or of the four women featured on Tuesday in this paper who were denied abortions here despite being told their foetuses had fatal abnormalities (their own lives were not regarded as being at risk).

Ms Harte, seriously ill with cancer, had been denied a right to an abortion because of a Cork University Hospital ethics forum “guidance”, contrary to doctors’ advice, suggesting her life was not under “immediate threat”. All five travelled to Britain for abortions. None of these women’s desperate plights would be addressed in the Daly Bill, limited as it is for understandable reasons to the minimum requirements of the X case ruling.

Clearly, even if the Daly Bill were to be passed, it would be necessary for the Dáil to legislate again when the expert group reports if, as it is to be hoped, the group makes the case for what might be termed “X plus” provisions. In such an eventuality, it is perhaps arguable that the passage now of the Daly Bill copperfastening the X case ruling might well make the political challenge of mustering a majority for further steps more difficult. Critics also say the Bill suffers from the defect of unintentionally decriminalising the doctor performing an abortion but not the woman, an omission easily amendable in committee. But even if the Bill does get short shrift in the Dáil, as is likely, it will have performed an important service in injecting urgency into the debate and reminding the House of its solemn obligation.