Proposed jail sentence for women who have an abortion is self-righteous and hypocritical

Deputies may be voting for law while hoping there is no prospect of its implementation


If the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill is passed without amendment, there will be a good case for abolishing the Dáil as well as the Seanad.

The Bill has a provision so stupid and cruel that any legislature worth having would at the very least radically amend it. Section 22 says that to “intentionally destroy unborn human life”, even in the very early stages of pregnancy, is an offence for which a woman is liable to imprisonment for “a term not exceeding 14 years.”

If the intention is to implement this law, it is breathtakingly hypocritical. If, as I suspect, the intention is not to implement it, then no self-respecting parliament should tolerate such a mockery of both the law and the democratic process.

If the Bill is not amended, here is the situation for a woman who wants an abortion for any reason other than the avoidance of an immediate threat to her life. It will be perfectly lawful for her to travel outside the State and have an abortion for medical and social reasons. It will be perfectly lawful for clinics outside the State to give that woman all the information she needs on how and where to have that abortion. But if she has the abortion on this side of the Irish Sea, she is liable to be sent to prison for up to 14 years. The crime that merits this sentence is not having the abortion, it is having it in the wrong place.

So here, in the making, is the next abortion scandal, the next X case, the next episode in which Ireland becomes an international pariah and we all wake up and ask “how the hell did we manage to create this situation?” What will happen is something like this. A vulnerable young woman discovers that she’s six weeks pregnant. She is confused and isolated, perhaps because the pregnancy results from abuse. She goes online and buys some pills that induce a miscarriage. But because she is not being medically treated, she ends up with a serious haemorrhage and is rushed to hospital. She blurts out what has happened and someone reports it to the Garda. She is brought before the courts facing a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Let’s remind ourselves what a 14-year sentence means in Ireland, what the Government means to convey in relation to the moral obnoxiousness of the offence committed by this young woman. Recently, two men were sentenced to 10 years for the “unspeakable” gang rape of a young woman in Cork. A couple who were convicted of manslaughter in relation to the death of an elderly woman through neglect were sentenced to community service without any term of imprisonment. The usual sentence for rape in the Irish courts is between five and seven years, and that for manslaughter is typically between five and nine years. Indeed, when the courts sentenced a young man to 14 years (the proposed penalty for having an abortion in the wrong place), for stabbing another man to death, the sentence was judged on appeal to be too harsh and reduced to eight years.

If the current legislation is passed without amendment, the Oireachtas will be stating, in effect, that taking the abortifacient pill, mifepristone, in the very early stages of a pregnancy (it only works in the first nine weeks) is a truly hideous offence, as bad as, if not worse than, gang rape or stabbing someone to death. If TDs really believe this, fair enough - so long as they think clearly about what they’re doing and have the courage to follow through on its implications.

Firstly, they have to understand that putting into law the idea that taking mifepristone is among the most serious of criminal offences has stark implications for current Irish medical practice. The State, through the HSE, currently supports or provides post-abortion medical services across the country. These services include “free, non-judgemental” follow-up treatment for women who have used mifepristone to abort an early pregnancy. Public hospitals like Portiuncula in Ballinasloe and Mayo General in Castlebar are among those who provide this service. Surely, under the proposed legislation, these hospitals cannot be “non- judgemental” about what the Oireachtas will have defined as an appalling crime.

There is, of course, another possibility. It is that the branding of women who take the abortion pill as outrageous criminals is purely symbolic. Maybe our legislators fully understand the hypocrisy of defining a crime by the location in which it is committed. Maybe they know that it is ludicrous to declare an act a terrible crime while also facilitating those who commit it. And maybe the legislation has one of those secret clauses: “But for Jaysus sake, lads, don’t even think about implementing this law.”

Maybe this is yet another case of declaring holy Ireland’s unique righteousness on abortion while hoping that everybody understands that we don’t actually want to do anything about it. (Sure, hasn’t that worked out so well for us in the past?) And maybe we still have a legislature with such little self-respect that it passes laws with its fingers crossed behind its back.

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