The proposed abortion legislation has many flaws and even once it’s passed, Ireland will still have one of the most restrictive regimes in the world. It is probably the most limited bill that could have been passed and includes many hurdles for suicidal women. It says nothing about pregnancy through rape and will do little to stem the tide of women forced to head to England to get abortions. However, all this considered, it is still a step in the right direction. It will protect the life of the mother and hopefully ensure that a tragic death like that of Savita Halappanavar never happens again. Most important of all, it has broken the taboo on abortion and shown that the anti-abortion extremists no longer dominate the debate.
The abortion bill (The Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013) is probably the strictest interpretation of the X case possible. Despite the anti-abortionists fear mongering, Ireland will still have extremely restrictive abortion laws. Abortion will only be legal if there is a threat to the mother’s life, not her health. So even if continuing the pregnancy will cause severe damage to the women, she will be forced to continue it. Threat of suicide will be considered a risk to the mother’s life, which has been the most controversial aspect of the bill. This has led to fears that women will fake being suicidal in order to get an abortion, despite the fact that suicidality is not something that’s easy to fake on a whim. As a result any women who claims she is suicidal must appear before a tribunal of three (two psychiatrists and a doctor) who must unanimously agree. This is an incredibly restrictive and traumatic experience to put any vulnerable women through and there are dangerous consequences. The last thing you want to ask a suicidal woman to do is prove it. The bill doesn’t contain a time limit on when the abortion can take place so as to allow flexibility in case of emergency (and delivery will be attempted if pregnancy is in late stage).
What is strange about the bill is that it says nothing about rape. If a woman is raped, she will still be legally obliged to give birth to that child. I want you to take a moment to ponder that horrifying thought. As though rape was not terrible enough, the victim must be forced to undergo a pregnancy as well. Why anyone would want to force this onto the poor woman is a cruelty I don’t understand. Rick Santorum was rightly torn apart for suggesting that rape victims should be forced to keep the child, yet that is the situation in Ireland. We pride ourselves on being more advanced and less extreme than America yet our abortion laws look like Santorum designed them himself. There is likewise no provision for abortion in the case of incest or abnormal foetal conditions as in the D case where the foetus would not survive outside the womb.
The bill will do little to stem the tide of women forced to go to England to have abortions. Officially 4,000 women did this last year (and 150,000 since 1980), though like all illegal activities, this is a gross underestimate and the true number is probably double or treble it. Few of these women are suffering direct threat to their life or are suicidal, so their situation will not change. As a result they will not be able to receive counselling, guidance or treatment. Instead they will be forced to bear a stigma of shame and suffer in silence. Official Ireland will sweep this problem back under the carpet.
However, it is still a great improvement on what we currently have. It is a victory in a sense that the suicide clause was not removed despite the pressure and that women will not be forced in front of six doctors (though that probably was kite flying by the government). No longer will suicidal women be forced to have a child they would rather kill themselves than raise. For the first time, proper help can be given to these vulnerable women and their cries for help won’t be ignored. Hopefully, we will have no repeats of the Savita tragedy where women die because rigid ideology takes precedent over their life. Crucially, it provides much needed clarity so women have some ideas where they stand. The bill also repeals the 1861 law which punished abortion with life imprisonment (the fact that the law was 150 years old shows how outdated and backward Ireland’s abortion stance was), though it does contain a 14 year jail sentence for illegal abortions.
The bill has been very controversial in Fine Gael with roughly a dozen (we might as well call them the Twelve Disciples) TDs expressing concern. Interestingly my constituency of Galway West has proven to be a strong source of opposition to the bill (I would have also thought of Galway East as being more conservative). Both Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames (from my hometown of Oranmore) and TD Brian Walsh have been two of the most vocal opposition voices in Fine Gael. This is somewhat strange as both are relatively young and would be presumably part of the more modern wing of the party. Neither represents the rural sections of the constituency nor would there be a particularly strong religious element in Oranmore or Galway City. This is also strange as it was in Galway City than Savita died. Now Healy-Eames is pretty clueless so her opposition means little, but Walsh has been the strongest opponent of the bill within Fine Gael. Interestingly the other Fine Gael TD Sean Kyne has not spoken out despite representing the more conservative Connemara section of the constituency. Walsh doesn’t fit in easily with the other TDs opposing the bill like the daft Peter Matthews (“But sure we’re all going to end up dead anyway”) or the creeping Jesus Michelle Mulherin (“Fornication is the most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies”).
The most important effect from this bill is that it has opened the debate on abortion and changed the way we view it. Before abortion was taboo which only hardcore activists were interested in and politicians avoided. Now it is an issue on the table and open for debate. People who would have never given abortion much thought are now grilling their TDs on their stance. The idea that women should be allowed to make decisions that affect their lives is an idea that has gained rapid prominence. Previously abortion debates have been dominated by anti-abortion groups while pro-choice groups were pushed to the side. Now the balance has changed and large numbers of otherwise unaffiliated people are joining the pro-choice cause. I still don’t think Ireland is ready for widespread abortion but the fact that such a thing can be considered shows how far we have come.
In particular the pro-life campaign has been badly damaged. They have been shown to be rigid ideologues who place greater priority on their dogma than women’s lives. They have been exposed as heartless extremists reliant on scare tactics. Most people presumed that Ireland was more conservative than it really was and that the Church and anti-abortion groups were still dominant. Instead they have been exposed as a small number of people with little support. It is interesting to note the almost complete silence of the Church. No one is listening to it anymore and its opinion no longer holds much sway. Its power has been broken and it is reduced to a shadow.
In conclusion this bill is a small step forward. It will undoubtedly save many women’s lives and prevent suicides from happening. It breaks the blanket ban on abortion and finally begins to give women a choice over their life. It denies the anti-abortion extremists their veto over abortion laws. This bill is a victory for women and for the right to choose. Ireland is finally facing up to the issue of abortion and no longer pretending it doesn’t exist. It is still a very restrictive bill and there is still some distance to go, but this is a start.