Abortion amendment has been disaster and must go
OPINION: Women must be allowed to make informed decisions about crisis pregnancies
A few days before the 1983 referendum that gave us article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, a heartbroken man spoke out. Brendan Hodgers described the death of his wife Sheila in an Irish hospital.
She had cancer but was taken off all drugs and treatments when she became pregnant because they might harm or kill the foetus. Mr Hodgers said that with his wife screaming in agony, he asked for her to be given an abortion. He got no reply. After giving birth to a premature baby girl who died immediately, Sheila Hodgers died.
He revealed his personal tragedy in the hope that it would remind Irish people that sometimes a woman needs an abortion and that the amendment could cost women’s lives. In the same year, an Irish man was convicted of the rape of two girls aged 14 and 16, both of whom had given birth to babies.
The architects of the amendment swept aside all such sorrowful facts. Ireland was a Catholic country, they insisted. Feminists who said they wanted contraception, women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, support for single mothers and divorce, were out to destroy traditional Irish values. Abortion must be banned in all circumstances. Leading campaigner John Reilly warned that those who opposed the amendment were opportunists whose strategy would be to spread confusion by arguing for abortion in cases of rape, incest, alleged “life and death” situations, and in the case of foetal abnormality.
The counter-strategy was to convince the people that abortion was, in the words of Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn “a slaughter of the innocents”.
The Catholic bishop Joseph Cassidy said in the full confidence of his moral authority that the most dangerous place for a child to be in the world was in a woman’s womb.
The zealots didn’t get the wording they originally wanted. Women were to be given equal rights with the foetus. However, they were confident when the amendment was passed that Ireland was the safest place in the world to be unborn.
In 1992, they were appalled when the Supreme Court ruled that a suicidal 14-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, had a constitutional right to an abortion in Ireland. This followed huge demonstrations of solidarity for the child by the Irish public, with candlelit marches, impassioned debates, and, most potent of all, the brave and sometimes devastated voices of women and children telling their own secret abortion stories to journalists.
The late John McGahern believed pregnancy was a private matter and felt “nothing but shame” upon being asked to vote in the subsequent referendum to give or withhold from women the right to travel or obtain information about abortion. The whole sorry situation was the fault of cowardly politicians who had failed to legislate, he wrote.
Praveen Halappanavar has described the death in agony of his pregnant wife Savita. He said that when, knowing she was miscarrying, she asked for an abortion, she was refused and told that she was in a Catholic country. The foetus died and was delivered, and later Savita died. They should, her grieving husband said, have saved “the bigger life”. The couple could have had other babies.
Anti-abortionists – and let us call them this, for they are no more pro-life than the rest of us – have accused pro-choice activists of being opportunists over this case. There is no problem with our laws or our Constitution, they insist.
But Mr Halappanavar, through his friends, went to the Galway Pro-Choice group and decided with its support to reveal the story of his tragedy because, like Brendan Hodgers 30 years ago, he wanted to let the Irish people know that our prohibition on abortion can cost the lives of women.
Article 40.3.3 has been a disaster. It has led to misery and it has failed to stop women from wanting, needing and in many cases getting abortions.
Ten women a day leave Ireland for terminations, and others go online and order abortion drugs. Proposed restrictions through further amendments were rejected in 1992 and 2002. Opinion polls show steadily increasing support for liberalising abortion law.
Successive governments have claimed legislating for article 40.3.3 is too complicated. This one must give us the chance to remove it and legislate in a way that trusts women to make informed decisions about crisis pregnancies.
Doctors should never be distracted in clinical emergencies by worries about the distinction between life and health, intentional and unintentional outcomes.
This is not a Catholic country. It is not opportunistic to talk about rape and incest and life and death situations and foetal abnormality in relation to abortion. It is the real experience of women.
Who, instinctively and lovingly, does not understand and support what Praveen Halapannavar said about “the bigger life”?
Susan McKay is a writer and journalist