Ireland: Government finally grows spine to permit abortion where a mother’s life at substantial risk Print E-mail


 London ~ Wednesday 19 December 2012, page 17

Ireland to legalise abortions where woman's life is at risk

Reforms expected to allow for abortions where there is a medical risk to the woman's life or a danger of suicide

By Henry McDonald in Dublin

A protest in favour of abortion legislation, outside the Irish parliament building in November. (Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images)
In a move unthinkable even a few years ago, the Irish governmentis to introduce legislation permitting abortions in limited circumstances.

The decision follows pressure from the European court of human rights, which ruled that abortions should be allowed in the republic in cases where a woman's life was at risk.

The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who represents one of the most traditional rural Catholic constituencies in Ireland, said the Fine Gael-Labour coalition would proceed with a mixture of "legislation with regulation".

The measures would be based on proposals from the so-called Expert Group. The reforms are expected to allow terminations where there is a medical risk to a woman's life or when she is thought to be in danger of killing herself. It is unclear whether the law will allow for terminations in cases of rape or sexual abuse.

In 1992 the Irish supreme court ruled in the case of a 14-year-old girl made pregnant through rape that abortion could be a legal option to someone who was suicidal. Successive Irish governments have failed to implement the ruling, mainly out of fear of upsetting the Catholic hierarchy and religious rightwing pressure groups.

The abortion ban came into international focus last month after an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in Galway university hospital during a miscarriage after she and her husband had repeatedly asked for a termination of her 19-week-old pregnancy. Her husband, Praveen, alleged that medical staff told them "this is a Catholic country" and that they would not carry out the termination.

The Expert Group recommended that legislation plus regulation would fulfil the requirements of the European convention on human rights and the judgment of the European court in the case of three women who claimed their human rights including the right to life had been put in danger by the abortion ban.

Kenny ruled out a free vote among members of the Dail to pass the legislation. That decision is likely to cause problems within Kenny's Fine Gael party, as 12 Dail deputies have opposed introducing abortion on the grounds of mothers being suicidal.

Anti-abortion groups such as Youth Defence have targeted Fine Gael TDs particularly in rural areas, promising to picket their constituency offices if they break their promise not to introduce abortion in Ireland.

Speaking after the Irish cabinet discussed the issue, the health minister, James Reilly, said he was very conscious of the sensitivities around the issue. "I know that most people have personal views on this matter. However, the government is committed to ensuring that the safety of pregnant women in Ireland is maintained and strengthened," he said.

"We must fulfil our duty of care towards them. For that purpose we will clarify in legislation and regulation what is available by way of treatment to a woman when a pregnancy gives rise to a threat to a woman's life. We will also clarify what is legal for the professionals who must provide that care while at all times taking full account of the equal right to life of the unborn child."

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 Dublin ~ Wednesday December 19 2012

Abortion nettle grasped at last but pain may lie ahead

By HARRY McGEE

ANALYSIS: Twenty years after the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the X case, a government has finally grasped the nettle and decided on a scheme that will give effect to the ruling.

The Cabinet decided yesterday on a combination of legislation and regulations to provide clarity on when a termination of a pregnancy is permissible. The scheme will allow abortions to be carried out only in accordance with the X case judgment: that is, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, as distinct from to her health.

While the Government statement was silent on the matter, the grounds for a legal termination will include the risk of suicide or self-destruction. The legislative scheme will not, however, incorporate, or make legal, abortion in other in extremis situations, such as rape, sexual abuse, or rare fatal foetal abnormalities.

Politically, there has been a sharp disparity in the response of the two Coalition parties to the announcement. Labour will strongly support the measure and it will be a major surprise if any strong dissenting voices emerge. A primary reason for this is that the party explicitly called for legislation on the X case in its manifesto, so all its candidates signed up to support the measure.

“It is one issue that we are united on because we all committed to it,” one of its TDs said. Many of its TDs would have liked the legislation to go further but will not object on that basis. It should also be noted that, in common with other parties, there is a diversity of opinion within Labour, and the party includes some with strong anti-abortion views.

By contrast, it has been evident for some time that this issue would present Fine Gael with a huge predicament. The focal point of contention surrounds the inclusion of the risk of suicide as a legal ground for abortion, which will severely test the party’s cohesion.

As many as 20 of its TDs have expressed opposition to the inclusion of suicide. It is clear that there are others who share that point of view but have made no public comment. Some say that that cohort comprises half or more of its 74 TDs.

One of the very striking factors about Fine Gael’s more recent intake of TDs is that the bulk are conservatives, or “Christian Democrat” to use the shorthand. The party has a smaller liberal wing (the “social democrats”) of which Alan Shatter, Frances Fitzgerald and Brian Hayes have been the standardbearers recently.

Hayes put forward a detailed argument that it was possible to be “both pro-life and pro-choice” and said it was possible to simultaneously respect the right to life of the unborn and that of the mother. He said that a “moderate majority” of the party should subscribe to that view.

That is not certain, especially in relation to the incorporation in the legislation of suicide. On Monday in the Dáil, Meath East TD Regina Doherty summarised, with great honesty, the difficulties she has had in acceding to the inclusion of suicide.

“The uncertainty for many of us stems from the issue of including suicide in legislating for the X case. It is difficult for somebody who has a genuine fear that once the door is open it will not be capable of being closed,” she said.

However, the moment of truth will not come until the spring. The Oireachtas Committee on Health will hold three full days of hearings in January, which will hear evidence from medical and legal experts. The Government will publish draft legislation and after extensive consultation will publish the Bill.

“Nobody is going to decide until they see the exact wording. It will create difficulties if it’s in any way loose and could open the door to abortion on demand,” said a Fine Gael TD yesterday.

Dublin TD Eoghan Murphy called for a free vote this week but Taoiseach Enda Kenny firmly ruled it out. There is no desire to repeat the farce of 1974 when then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave allowed a free vote on contraceptives and then voted against his own government’s proposals.

Nor is there a possibility, given its huge majority, that the Government will lose the vote. However, Kenny might have to deal with the prospect of Fine Gael TDs voting against their own Government.

The hybrid solution of legislation and regulations was one of four recommendations – and probably the strongest – made by an expert group chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan. The group had been asked to examine what form of action Ireland should take in the light of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the A, B, and C case.

In that case, the court found that Ireland had failed to respect the private life of a woman, C, who had had cancer and become unintentionally pregnant when she was in remission. She had been unable to obtain clear medical advice as to the impact of the pregnancy on her cancer and the effect it would have on her wellbeing and her life. She had also been unable to ascertain whether or not she qualified for a lawful termination.

What was decided yesterday addressed that lacuna and is designed to bring clarity. Of course the backdrop to these developments – and the primary reasons why it has happened much more quickly than expected – was the soul-searching triggered by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

There has been a narrative abroad over the past few months that six successive governments sat on their hands and did nothing. That was not quite the case. Soon after the 1992 judgment, and again in 2001, governments did put the matter to the people by referendum.

On both occasions the ratio decidendi of the Supreme Court ruling was incorporated with one single – but fundamental – qualifier. The risk of suicide or self-destruction was to be excluded as a legal ground for abortion.

On both occasions the referendums were defeated after rancorous and divisive campaigns. It is over a decade since that last attempt and it is true to say that, since then, governments – and many politicians – have been markedly reluctant to grapple with the issue. That was, until yesterday.

* Harry McGee is Political Correspondent

 Dublin ~ Wednesday December 19 2012

Church says State is opening floodgate to killing of unborn

Seana Stafford and her 13-week-old son James at the pro-life protest outside the Dail

By Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

The abortion controversy has reignited after Catholic bishops accused the Government of opening the floodgates to the "intentional killing of the unborn".

The hierarchy issued a hard-hitting statement after the Coalition confirmed that it will introduce legislation and regulation before summer to deal with abortion – with suicide to be included as a ground for termination.

But just hours after the decision was announced, the rift between the Government and the Catholic hierarchy was visibly widening.

The archbishops said it would "pave the way for the direct and intentional killing of unborn children".

The four leading churchmen in the country swiftly issued a strongly worded statement condemning the Coalition move.

Cardinal Sean Brady along with Archbishops Diarmuid Martin, Dermot Clifford and Michael Neary signed off on the co-ordinated attack on the government proposal.

Fundamental
Emphasising that the right to life is the most fundamental right, the archbishops said that the lives of the unborn depend on the choices that will be made by public representatives.

"The unavoidable choice that now faces all our public representatives is: will I choose to defend and vindicate the equal right to life of a mother and the child in her womb in all circumstances, or will I choose to licence the direct and intentional killing of the innocent baby in the womb?" they said.

Several Fine Gael ministers and TDs are concerned about the move to legislate, but are holding fire until they see the actual wording of the law.

They will be pushing for an extremely tight and limited regime.

However, party backbencher Peter Mathews was threatening last night to vote against the Government if he was not satisfied with its contents.

And heaping further pressure TDs, the archbishops appealed to their moral conscience.

They said the legislation would fundamentally change "the careful balance between the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child in current law and medical practice in Ireland".

The government decision is based on the recommendations of an expert group, which came up with a range of options, but pointed toward regulations backed up by legislation.

It was compiled to set out options on how to respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling on the so-called ABC case, which found the State violated the rights of a woman in remission from cancer who was forced to travel abroad to terminate her pregnancy.

In its formal announcement, the Government indicated the regulation and legislation will include the threat of suicide being grounds for abortion.

Catholic campaign group the Iona Institute argued it would be both wrong and unnecessary to allow abortion to prevent suicide.

A collection of pro-choice groups welcomed the government's decision, but warned politicians must stop dragging their feet.