Sarah Carey The Sunday Times Sunday May 13th 2007
I thought I understood the law on abortion until the Miss D case was decided last week. Its complexities have left me utterly confused, although that appears to place me in the same boat as many of Ireland's finest legal minds.
Following Justice Liam McKechnie's judgment, the law appears to be this: the right to life of the unborn cannot interfere with the right to travel for an abortion. This means that any pregnant woman, even a teenager in the care of the state, must be allowed to leave a country for an abortion regardless of the circumstances.
The woman might need the abortion because her life is at risk, or because her baby is unviable, or even if it was conceived under astrological conditions. Doesn't matter: not only can she go, but if any agency or officer of the state tries to uphold the right to life of the unborn child by stopping her, they will lose their case in court and may even get a slap on the wrist from the judge for trying.
It seems official now- Ireland has state sanctioned abortion on demand provided it takes place in England. And whose fault is this? By delicious irony, the pro-life movement's. This whole sorry mess started in 1983, when the Garret Fitzgerald-led government rejected the wording of a referendum on abortion proposed by Fianna Fáil. Peter Sutherland, the attorney general, warned Fitzgerald and his cabinet that the amendment was flawed on several counts, one of which was that it could actually enshrine the right to an abortion in the constitution.
A bitter debate ensued during which Fine Gael was accused of trying to introduce abortion into Ireland. The amendment passed, and the X case in 1992 proved Sutherland right. The subsequent referendums on travel and information all arose from this foolish 'pro-life' amendment in 1983.
So let's summarise the political position today: Labour is the only party willing to commit to legislate for abortion in this country. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have specifically stated they have no plans to provide legislation. The Progressive Democrats and the Green Party have no policy at all, and Sinn Féin has issued a statement that includes key words such as 'compassion' but says nothing about plans to legislate.
Sinn Féin says the decision rests with the woman, but given its distinct lack of enthusiasm for legislation, the pregnant woman's decision appears to incorporate deciding whether to fly Aer Lingus or Ryanair to London.
Who can blame the parties for their lily-livered approach? We get the politicians we deserve, and they address the issues that we ask them to. If Irish people really wanted to sort out abortion once and for all, then politicians would jump to it. Instead the political consensus is on the status quo.
Here's what that means: every year, women in their thousands should buy cheap airline tickets and should slip off to Britain to deal with their unseemly little problems. When they come back, they shoulde keep quiet so we can pretend that there's no abortion in Ireland. And if any complicated cases come to court, could pregnant women please, unlike the uncooperative Miss D, pretend they are suicidal? Then the campaigners on either side can sit back and shriek about the disgrace of it all. If you're pro-life it's a disgrace that judges are bringing in abortion. If you are pro-choice, it's a disgrace that that women are being forced into court. Everyone else is spared the challenge of working out a position in a logical manner. Logic is only tenuously linked to the abortion issue.
I met a political canvasser yesterday who was delighted that Enda Kenny would n't try to introduce abortion into Ireland, but she was worried abour Labour. Doesn't she get it? Are these pro-lifers so blinded by their passion that they cannot see that we already have abortion? Do they really believe that taking the life of an unborn child in England rather than Ireland somehow negates the act? But because these hysterics shouts loudest, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are afraid of them.
The time has come for political action and we are all going to have to be sensible about it. Labour's policy is the one that I favour. It is commited to bringing forward legislation to provide for the termination of pregnancy where there is a risk of serious injury to the woman, or a threat to her life (including suicide), and where foetal abnormality is such that the foetus will never be born alive (like Miss D's case). I firmly believe a majority of people in the country would agree to abortion in these circumstances.
Legislating for the circumstances outlined by Labour is sensible and the least that the women of Ireland deserve. Irish women who discover that their baby cannot live or that their own health is dangerously at risk should not have to sneak over to England, like thieves in the night, in order to have terminations. Indeed, in 2002, the masters of three main maternity hospitals agreed that terminations in cases like Miss D's should be available in Ireland.
In order for these proposals to have some hope of being passed in the Dáil, however, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have to change their positions. Perhaps an election win might give Enda Kenny some confidence on the issue. But Fianna Fáil has been in power for 13 of the 15 years since the X case and refused to bring in legislation. So their policy seems to be to do nothing when in power and to oppose legislation when not.
It's easy to blame the HSE for Miss D's problems, but if we don't ask our politicians to provide legislation, then her plight is our fault.
There is no point complaining about the trauma this 17-year-old suffered unless those with a liberal attitude to abortion demand legislation. Thousands of women in Ireland have had abortions. Other women should be capable of putting themselves in their shoes. All those women have husbands and boyfriends and friends. Where are their voices?
Down the pub grumbling about the HSE and Ms D, clearly, and not on the streets pushing our politicians off the fence.