'Reasonable compromise' beset by a tide of controversy


ANALYSIS: HOW THE NO VOTE WON: What began as an attempted compromise turned into a proposal that kept unravelling as the weeks of campaigning went by, writes Carol Coulter

When the Government first published its proposals on a new abortion referendum, which involved giving constitutional protection to a Bill, many welcomed it at a reasonable compromise.

The proposal followed an extensive consultation process, and incorporated the wishes of the medical profession for the protection of current medical practice in treating pregnant women.

It contained concessions to both the pro-life and liberal lobbies, offering pro-life campaigners their goal of a ban on abortion in cases of threatened suicide, the clear criminalisation of abortion, and protection of current medical practice.

It offered the liberal side of the argument a definition of abortion that could protect the morning-after pill and the IUD, a significant degree of discretion for the medical practitioner treating pregnant women with life-threatening conditions, and a confirmation of the right to travel.

But all of these elements proved controversial, and allowed for an accumulation of opposition to the amendment. As the debate evolved, it was clear that to vote Yes people needed to be convinced of all five elements in the proposal, while a strong objection to any one of them would lead to a No vote.

Many of the problems with the detailed proposals were signalled by a series of 34 questions put to the Taoiseach by the Fine Gael leader, Mr Michael Noonan. These highlighted issues that were to produce different interpretations as the weeks unfolded, like the apparent difference between Article 40.3.3 and the new proposal on the status of the morning-after pill, the definition of "medical practitioner" and "approved place", and whether it would be legal to assist a girl in State care, such as the one in the C case, to go abroad for an abortion.

Yet the proposal appeared to have a fair wind. The bishops gave it their enthusiastic backing and, unlike in 1992, never wavered in their support. The main pro-life groups, the Pro-Life Campaign and the Pro-Life Movement, did likewise. The Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology endorsed it. The two most prominent psychiatrists in the State, Prof Patricia Casey and Prof Anthony Clare, issued a joint statement saying that abortion was not a solution for a suicide threat.

But there were divisions in the pro-life ranks. Youth Defence and its ally, the Mother and Child campaign, opposed the proposal because of its failure to protect the unborn from the moment of conception. The Connaught-Ulster MEP, Ms Dana Rosemary Scallon, also opposed it. "On local radio we were head to head with Justin Barrett (of the Mother and Child Campaign)," said a spokesman for the Pro-Life Campaign.

Then the apparent medical consensus also began to unravel. Eleven consultant psychiatrists wrote to the newspapers differing with the views of Profs Casey and Clare, and urging a No vote.

The human dimension of the whole abortion question was brought sharply into focus in a letter from Ms Deirdre de Barra, who had to travel to the UK for an abortion when she discovered her unborn child suffered from a condition that meant it would never know life outside the womb. Others with similar experiences also spoke out.

Her letter was published in The Irish Times on Monday, February 25th. On Wednesday the Masters of the three Dublin maternity hospitals held a press conference to call for a Yes vote. Faced with questions about Ms de Barra, they all acknowledged that they favoured the availability of abortion in Ireland to deal with such cases, and also conceded that the existing proposal was imperfect.

Their position was further undermined by a statement on Monday last from a group of 25 obstetricians and gynaecologists, including three former Masters from two of the hospitals, saying that the proposal involved too much potential pain for very little gain.

Then, in an ironic coincidence, the man who had started it all by impregnating the 14-year-old girl in the X case came before the courts again, again charged with a sexual assault on a young girl.

He was sentenced to 3½ years in prison on Tuesday, the day before the poll.

It was a sharp reminder to voters of the human dimension of the issue they were voting on.