Ireland in desperate need of its own set of secular morals and ethics?

There’s a rather disturbing story on the front page of today’s Irish Times, which recounts the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar.

Despite the fact that she was found to be miscarrying Savita was denied an abortion because ‘the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.’ Here’s a fuller account of what happened:

Speaking from Belgaum in the Karnataka region of southwest India, Mr Halappanavar said an internal examination was performed when she first presented.

“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.

“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.

“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

As Brian has pointed out several times on Slugger, there’s a serious ethical and legal gap here with parliamentary stalling taking place, both north and south of the border.

This is tragic, and extreme. But those political activists who gleefully push the responsibility back onto practitioners now have a cast iron example of why political action in this territory is needed and long overdue.

In the case of Northern Ireland, there simply are no guidelines. In the south, it is actually permitted by the Constitution [in the 8th amendment enacted 1983, in which the right to life of the mother is given equal status to that of the unborn child]. But, again as in so many other cases, the Government is biding its time hoping it can get away without having to craft its own ethical guidelines.

Sorcha Pollak writing in Time Magazine notes:

The Republic of Ireland is one of a minority of four European states (the others are Malta, San Marino and Monaco) that still enforce highly restrictive criminal abortion laws. But, with approximately 4,000 women from the republic and 1,000 from the north traveling to Britain each year for abortions, the Irish electorate is increasingly calling for clarification of abortion legislation.

If there is confusion over the legal status of abortion in Ireland, that’s hardly surprising. Northern Ireland never enacted the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion in the rest of the U.K. Northern Irish law states that women can have an abortion only if there is a long-term or permanent adverse risk to her physical or mental health.

Even tougher strictures limit the availability of abortions in the Republic of Ireland, where a 1983 amendment to its constitution did seem to permit terminations but only if the mother’s life was in danger.

This right has rarely been tested. There is no official legislation defining what the “risk of life to the mother” actually entails, and earlier laws prohibiting all abortions have never been repealed. Medical practitioners fear criminal and professional sanctions. [Emphasis added]

Irish Constitutional law is already couched way beyond the bounds of Cannon law of the Catholic Church. Therefore resort to church law therefore provides no guidance to how the law might treat the individual medical practitioners faced with real and problematic questions of ethics.

Irish politicians have had 29 years to deal with this problem. And they have serially failed to do so. And there seems little intention to take action the matter anytime soon. Sara McInerney tweeted from the Dail this morning:

[As I noted on Twitter, Gerry could do just as well asking his colleague Martin McGuinness why they’re similarly abandoning their responsibilities in the north] In fact, this is what the Taoiseach’s answer was:

Hardly sufficient unto the day that’s in it. Rarely have I seen a single story that so completely condemns a generation of politicians for their lack of moral courage, and utter carelessness for the dictates of their own Constitution.

Secular ethics and Christian dogma have some strong consonances. But a modern, increasingly multi cultural nation like Ireland needs to develop a mature set of secular ethics that enable citizens to step up to their own moral and ethical responsibilities.

Right now, the Taoiseach is being made to eat his own words of just a few weeks ago: ‘I think that this issue is not of priority for government now’. Well, what about now Taoiseach?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty