Time for political focus on abortion not procrastination

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

INSIDE POLITICS: Budget speculation has been swept aside for the past 10 days by the raging controversy over abortion which generated a wave of emotion that swept across the political system.

That emotion has changed the context of the debate over abortion even if it has not provided a great deal of clarity about what happened in Galway University Hospital or what the Government intends to do next about the broader issue.

What the controversy has done is to give the Government a clear opening to come up with a legal framework to deal with the implications of the X case a full 20 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision that a threat of suicide constituted a ground for abortion.

If the Coalition seizes the opportunity and moves to deal with the issue early in the new year, it can be assured of broad public support for a solution that provides legal underpinning for current medical practice in situations where a mother’s life is in danger.

While this might still provoke strong objections from the anti-abortion lobby and will not meet the demands of the pro-choice groups, it would have a real chance of winning broad cross-party support in the Dáil.

To get to that position, however, the Government will need to demonstrate a far greater level of political skill than it has shown since the controversy burst on an unsuspecting public last week.

Team selection trouble

The appointment of three people from University Hospital Galway to the seven-person investigation team established by the Health Service Executive was asking for trouble and it obscured the fact that an expert from outside the country was being brought in to chair the group.

While the composition of the team may well have conformed to normal medical practice, the potential problem should have been spotted at political level and countermanded before the announcement was made. The resulting row with Praveen Halappanavar was deeply unedifying and Minister for Health James Reilly was forced to intervene to order a change in the inquiry personnel. By that stage, though, the bereaved husband had set his face against the process and was demanding a public sworn inquiry.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny then made an embarrassing and ham-fisted appeal in the Dáil to Mr Halappanavar, asking him to reconsider his refusal to co-operate with the HSE inquiry. Mind you, the Taoiseach was certainly in tune with the public mood when he declined to go down the road of setting up the sworn public inquiry sought by Mr Halappanavar’s lawyer. The enormous cost and lengthy delays inevitably involved would make it pointless.

Sense and clarity was finally brought into the political discussion when Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton took Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Thursday. While responding sympathetically to the bereaved husband, she didn’t shirk pointing out that the HSE had a fundamental responsibility to conduct its own inquiry into what happened in Galway.

“Let us cut to the net point. This is about the safety and care of women so that this episode or some tragic happening like this does not occur again,” she said, pointing out the HSE had a duty to find out if there were unsafe practices in Galway.

Further clarity emerged later in the day when HSE director-designate Tony O’Brien confirmed the inquiry, or “clinical review” to use the medical term, would go ahead despite Mr Halappanavar’s refusal to participate. He also revealed he had asked the Health Information and Quality Authority to undertake a statutory investigation.

In parallel with the emotions generated by the Halappanavar case, Dr Reilly was presented with the report of the expert group on how the Government should respond to the judgment in the European Court of Human Rights that the State had failed in its duty to deal with the implications of the X case. The report will be brought to Cabinet on Tuesday and published almost immediately.

While the report is set to provide a number of options, the most likely one to be followed involves the introduction of primary legislation to provide a framework for regulations that will give effect to the X case decision.

Under this scenario, the legislation itself would not detail the circumstances in which doctors should act to save the life of a mother or attempt to determine when threatened suicide could be interpreted as such a threat.

Instead, it would provide a legal framework to cover the guidelines devised by the medical experts.

Such an approach would be likely to command broad support in both Government parties. While a few Fine Gael TDs might be uneasy at legislating for abortion even in these very limited circumstances and some Labour TDs would favour a much more liberal regime, such an approach should provide a basis for consensus.

Legislative framework

It would also be likely to get at least some support from the Opposition benches. The attitude of the majority of Fianna Fáil TDs mirrors that in Fine Gael, with the bulk of the party likely to accept the need for a legislative framework.

The reluctance of Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín to go along with his party’s line during the week showed that no party has a completely unified position on abortion and that makes a broad consensus on legislation an attainable objective.

To achieve it, though, the Government will have to act quickly. The Taoiseach was right to say during the week that he would not be rushed into a hasty decision by the Galway tragedy but, considering that the X case has been allowed to languish for 20 years, further procrastination is not an option.

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