A spirited rearguard action


It was unrealistic to hope the Government’s decision to acknowledge its Constitutional responsibility and give legislative effect to a twenty-one year-old Supreme Court judgement would be regarded in a restrained light. Instead, it has re-ignited the passionate intensity of anti-abortion groups that are seeking to enforce a specific form of morality in this State, even at the cost of women’s lives. As before, politicians are being specifically targeted.

The draft terms of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 are the absolute minimum required to satisfy this State’s constitutional and international obligations and to protect pregnant women. They address flaws and inadequacies identified by the Supreme Court, by the European Court of Human Rights and by the medical profession. They identify three forms of crisis pregnancies that may require an abortion and provide guidance and legal protection for medical practitioners in those instances. They are so restrictive that cases of foetal abnormality, rape, incest and health-threatening situations affecting the mother are all excluded.

During the past number of months, the medical, legal and ethical complexities of this unfortunate situation have been publicly explored at meetings organised by a special Oireachtas committee at Leinster House and by a formal inquest into the untimely death of Savita Halappanaver in a Galway hospital. They provided graphic details of the shortcomings of existing services and the medical routines that apply. Further consideration will be given to these issues next week when medical and legal experts with widely diverging views will be questioned closely by Oireachtas committee members about the proposed legislation.

The wording of the 1983 Constitutional referendum attempted to prevent a medical termination in all circumstances. The wording was flawed and unwise and two attorneys general advised against it. But governments ignored their advice and bowed to pressure from the Catholic Church and from campaigning groups. Confrontation between the Catholic hierarchy and the Government became inevitable last July when Cardinal Seán Brady publicly promoted a lobbying campaign of Ministers, TDs and Senators in opposition to any legislation on the “X” case.

Since then, Fine Gael politicians have been targeted in a well-organised and highly-orchestrated exercise and a number of TDs have threatened to oppose the legislation. Labour Party politicians are solidly in support. Micheál Martin is withholding judgement until he sees the final shape of the Bill while Sinn Féin will impose a supporting whip. As happened with legislation dealing with contraception, divorce and homosexuality, this campaign has all the appearance of a spirited rearguard action by a once-dominant Catholic Church.