Thursday, May 10, 2007

Political Failure On Abortion Question

Irish Times Editorial Thursday May 10th 2007.

The relief that most people will feel at yesterday's ruling on the D case in the High Court by Mr Justice Liam McKechnie must be tinged by anger. It is good to know that we do not live in a State in which the appropriate response to the tragic dilemma of a young girl in its care is to call the police and drag her through the courts. It is, however, depressing to realise that, in 2007, this is something that has to be argued over by five teams of lawyers.

The 17-year-old Miss D is 18 weeks pregnant with a baby that has anencephaly, a condition that precludes its survival for more than a few days outside the womb. No civilised society would want to force a young woman in these circumstances to bear a child against her own clearly stated wishes. Most people will have assumed that since 1992, when the people voted to enshrine in the Constitution the freedom to travel for an abortion outside the jurisdiction, such a case could not arise. Yet, in the legislative vacuum that has been created and sustained by our political leaders, the law remains unclear and the bodies of vulnerable girls and women continue to be treated as legal battlegrounds.

In his ruling, Mr Justice McKechnie is rightly critical of the Health Service Executive for its failure to place Miss D's welfare at the heart of its response to her situation. The HSE, with its heavy-handed and ultimately contradictory approach to the case, deserves all the censure it gets. But it was merely doing what the State itself has done since the X case 15 years ago. Neither government nor the Oireachtas has lived up to its responsibility to women who find themselves faced with the painful predicament of crisis pregnancy. In his ruling on the X case, Mr Justice Niall McCarthy described the failure by the Oireachtas to legislate for the anti-abortion amendment added to the Constitution in 1983 as "no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable". A decade and a half on, that failure has become recklessly negligent.

Time and again, responsibility has been shirked. In 1992, the then government promised to legislate for the X case ruling if its own proposals on abortion were defeated in a referendum. In 1996, the Constitution review group recommended that legislation should be introduced to implement the X judgment, specifying the conditions under which abortion could be carried out lawfully in Ireland. In 2002, the Taoiseach Mr Ahern was again defeated on a proposal to roll back the X case, having promised legislation in the event of failure. Yet again, he simply walked away from the problem.

The alternative taoiseach Enda Kenny is promising to do likewise, committing himself not to introduce legislation on abortion. It is a strange political culture in which aspirant leaders promise inactivity on an issue that can cause personal anguish for vulnerable citizens and make the law a source of disquiet and distress. In a mature society, citizens would have the right to expect better and political parties would recognise that awkward questions demand courageous answers.

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