Steven King The Irish Examiner Wednesday May 9th 2007
Charles Haughey was on to something when he claimed election manifestos had a 'Marxian ring about them'. Thirty years on from the first (disastrous) Fianna Fáil manifesto, the 2007 edition stretches to 153 pages. There are policies on this and policies on that, all in the most mind-numbing detail- for a country of only four million people.
What stands out is not some brilliant new brainwave. No, what stands out is the omission of a single sentence on the issue that has most tortured the modern Irish state. I mean of course, abortion.
I have some little experience of drafting election manifestos, and great fun it is too. The drafter has an opportunity to slip in his or her pet scheme. Then there is the wait to see if the polititicians spot it, dispute it and draw a line through it- or if it goes on to be party policy.
Needless to say, I knew better than to try to insert anything on the divisive subject of abortion. So amI being hypocritical if I criticise Fianna Fáil? I don't think so. If and when legislation on abortion becomes unavoidable, there will be a Fianna Fáil policy and every TD will be expected to vote according to instructions from the chief whip. And woe betide anyone who disobeys that instruction. In Fianna Fáil, unlike most Northern parties, there are no 'free votes'- opportunities to vote according to conscience- or very few. But if there is a Fianna Fáil position, what is it? Voters are given no clue. The same goes for Fine Gael, the Greens and Ireland's avowed 'liberal' party, the PD's.
The newspapers and the airwaves are filled with argument and counter-argument about the rights and freedoms of 17-year-old Miss D, who wishes to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy because the foetus is fatally brain damaged. At the very same time, most of the parties waffle on at length about marine policy but are afraid to say anything about an issue that affects thousands of Irish women every year.
Actually that is being kind. Some concede privately that Irish abortion law is, at best, deficient and, at worst, cruel. But they know- or suspect- that to suggest bringing Irish abortion law into some kind of line with European norms would be electoral suicide. They might be right- and are, therefore guilty only of cowardice.
But there is another group that is not afraid of clarifying the law- because it agrees with it. At one time, the Taoiseach's position was that the Oireachtas was duty-bound to legislate in the parliamentary term now ending to give effect to the ruling of the Supreme Court in the X case of 1992. The Government has not done so and neither Fianna Fáil nor the PD's,-if their manifestos are anything to go by- intend to do so during the life of the next Dáil if they can help it.
There is an honourable exception to this conspiracy of silence. Labour has given a manifesto commitment to bring the law into line with the 1992 judgment. Sinn Féin has not published its manifesto but, for a supposedly radical party, its record on the issue is pathetic. When the topic was debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Féin's health minister studiously avoided the chamber. For all Sinn Féin's talk of 'an Ireland of equals', the blunt fact is that the position is unequal- some doctors in the North would perform an abortion in cases like Miss D's, where a foetus has a congenital deformity.
Not that the North is a paragon of virtue. Abortion might be freely available, with medical consent everywhere else in Britain but not in the North. Rather, nurses in Liverpool have to deal with most of the situations created in Belfast and Derry. I have some experience of that particular inequality. In my last year at Queen's University, a Catholic friend said he and his girlfriend needed to borrow some money. We hadn't always seen eye to eye but I knew from his tone and expression that he didn't need the money for a crate of beer. They were desperate.
I didn't ask questions. I knew they were broke and that getting the families involved wasn't an option. I gave him the money. It was their decision. They were a pretty stable couple as student romances go. There was no question in my mind that he was forcing the issue: he was n't that sort of guy. The following week I bumped into his girlfriend and asked if she was OK. She looked at me earnestly and just said: 'Thanks Steven. We owe you'. No more was ever said about it.
That was the only time I have been confronted directly by the abortion dilemma. It wasn't one of the so-called hard cases. It was a social abortion. They were in their final year and didn't have the money for an abortion, let alone bring up a child. I have many regrets in life, but lending that money is not one of them. Many people will say I was wrong, but I should never have had to be involved. The job of legislators is to legislate; moralising is the churches prerogative. What kind of country is it that says abortion is permissable just so long as medical unpleasantness takes place in an out-of-sight destination?
The so-called pro-life lobby is nothing if not inventive. It knows that in today's Ireland, just because the Pope says something doesn't mean it's right. How can an 80-year-old celibate man understand what it is like to be forced to knowingly carry a terminally deformed foetus- sorry, unborn child- to full term only to see it die within days? No, the 21st century pro-life argument is all about caring for the emotional health of the mother. Abortion is wrong because it's psychologically scarring, the lobbyists say. That might very well be right.
But to pretend that 50,000 Irish women have been traumatised for life by the experience of availing of a termination in England seems implausible. Some, no doubt, have been. For others, it will have been been absolutely the right decision in the circumstances. For more, the pain was made worse by the experience of having to go to a strange clinic in another country without the support of family and friends.
The point is, the arguments for, and against abortion in any and all sets of circumstance are prefectly legitimate. But they should be aired in the pages of women's amgazines, not the High Court. If you believe a fertilised human egg is a baby, fine. But, if you don't, you should have an expectation that the State, within limits, will vindicate your decision.
Miss D's case is a particularly unfortunate one. But rather than pretending that the law- or worse, the Constitution- can deal with every possible range of circumstances, it's time politicians had the guts to say it's best left to the experts: women.