Abortion issue is not amenable to the political whip…

Mary Lou McDonald is not the first politician to get ambushed by Vincent Browne. But in fairness to the Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, it was not the fairest invocation of the one thing in the north and another in the south schtick.

Pro life campaigner, Pat Carey produced a copy of a letter making it clear than all four of Northern Ireland’s political parties were against an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act.

That’s not at all the same thing that Sinn Fein’s private members motion in the Dail calls for, which merely seeks clarity in the law as it currently pertains in the Republic. Indeed later on, Browne takes the conversation even further off piste.

The most genuinely difficult part was the obligation put upon the party by its own Ard Fheis to act in concert. As Pearse Doherty noted back in May, that the party’s position

…was that it opposed abortion but that the Government should legislate for the X Case where abortion can take place if a woman’s life was at risk because of pregnancy, including the risk of suicide.

This is the nub of the problem. It is hard to how some of form of legislation will not increase the number of actual abortions take place, since the problem seems to be a conservative caution on the part of Obstetricians.

As Mary Lou points out there are already about 30 taking place in Northern Ireland every year. Yet before this crisis (and the establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic), how widely was this understood?

I suspect not at all. We’re here largely because Savita and her husband were unaware of the law and made their thoughts and demands known, not just to the medical staff at the time, but now to wider civil society in Ireland.

Fair play to Sinn Fein for trying to keep up the pressure on the political establishment. But when you have to coral peoples’ conscience into a tightly drawn motion, there’s a danger that you achieve the opposite of what you set out to.

Which in fact ought to be clarity around the law and its practical effects on the individual.

  • “Fair play to Sinn Fein for trying to keep up the pressure on the political establishment.”

    The real pressure on the establishment is coming from Savita’s husband:

    Her husband Praveen has said his family had “no faith” in the inquiry and would not be co-operating with it.

    His lawyer told Irish state broadcaster RTE that Mr Halappanavar would not allow the inquiry to examine her medical records, but wanted a public inquiry.

    Gerard O’Donnell, said the family would not consent to an HSE-led inquiry.

    “It’s important to remember that he lost his wife while under the care of the HSE,” he said.

    “He feels that anybody who is appointed by the HSE or paid for by the HSE to conduct an enquiry into his wife’s death won’t meet the criteria that we would advise him, as lawyers, of getting to the truth.”

  • John Ó Néill


    From I can see (and like most people I feel pretty inadequate discussing the issue) – I think there is a lot being bundled in together here under the headline of abortion.

    In effect, the requirement to legislate for the X case (and the ABC case) arising from Supreme Court and European Court rulings relates to a fairly narrow spectrum of terminations of pregnancy. A wider issue here is that there has been a requirement to legislate which has been ignored by successive governments, with no apparent facility to make the government act to resolve the issue. This seems to be exposing a constitutional limitation in the role of the judiciary, or, in the role and/or attitudes of the holders of the Presidency. Since the last President is currently studying Canon Law that probably isn’t surprising that she didn’t feel compelled to explore whether the President is constitutionally required to compel the Oireachtas to legislate since Catholic teaching here seems to be non-intervention in any instance. But the wider failure to legislate for a Supreme Court ruling suggests a much much deeper constitutional issue in terms of balancing the judicial and legislative functions of the state. As recently as last April, Clare Daly (at the time a Socialist Party TD but now just a United Left Alliance TD), moved a bill that was intended to legislate for the X case, but which was voted down by the government Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill 2012. So buried behind this current ‘abortion’ debate is a wider legitimacy crisis in how the state functions.

    The current public debate around ‘abortion’ isn’t particularly nuanced (although Mick pretty much nails it above). For various reasons, this lack of clarity suits those against any form of intervention (generally calling themselves pro-lifers) and those who feel that women don’t enter into the decision lightly and should have some elective choice in terminating an otherwise healthy pregnancy. In reality, X and ABC have no relevance to a facility for elective abortions (if we want to call them that), since the gap in legislation relates to provisions for medical practitioners to assess the risk of the pregnancy on the health of the mother and make a clinical intervention in the knowledge that they are adequately protected in law. In the X case, the Supreme Court ruled that the pregnancy could be terminated if the mother’s life was at risk (including from suicide), with current clinical practice seemingly meaning that this only happens where the risk to life is very much imminent, with no provision where the risk is to the mother’s health in a more general sense. Alongside this is the issue of pregnancies where the foetus will be unable to survive outside the womb and where, elsewhere, the pregnancy would be terminated rather than making the mother go full term. Not all of this seems is immediately in the current public debate on the issue which is why all of the parties look extremely uncomfortable with the subject. Without trying to overly politicise it, the most exposed party, politically, seem to be Labour with Labour TDs claiming a long-standing commitment to legislating for X, while voting down legislation in April (and a motion last night) whilst attending protests on the lack of action. The impression from Fine Gael is that they won’t legislate and will happily scout around for a sufficient pretext to dodge the issue as long as possible.

    In Savita Halappanavar’s case, based on what has been reported, her waters had broke when the foetus was only 16/17 weeks and so wouldn’t have been able to survive delivery. Her case history and the adequacy and appropriateness of her medical treatment should be the focus of investigation by whatever competent authority and Praveen Halappanavar is pretty justified in questioning the independence of the HSE to conduct such an investigation. Yesterday it was unedifying to see him being publicly challenged by the Taoiseach and others to engage with the HSE inquiry, when the original had 3 of 7 members from the hospital where she died etc. Ultimately, the medical issues at the core of her death may have no bearing on the X case or the legislative lacuna, but the handling of the investigation into it has been absolutely woeful on the part of the government. Personally, I think this is likely to be compounded by further delay in acting to legislate for the X case claiming that the government needs to wait for a Halappanaver inquiry/investigation to report before acting. Kicking the can down the road being the favoured methodology of most recent Irish governments.

  • “Praveen Halappanavar is pretty justified in questioning the independence of the HSE to conduct such an investigation. .. Kicking the can down the road being the favoured methodology of most recent Irish governments.”

    John, I think ‘kicking the can down the road’ understates the more general problems surrounding governance; I suspect the first move is towards cover-up as indicated by the tendency to go for an internal inquiry dressed up in the language of independence.

  • John Ó Néill

    I heard someone on the radio this morning describing it as trying to predict the outcome (i.e. load the panel and handpick the chair to get a particular result).

  • Mick Fealty

    It would not be the first time nor the last. Gerard Howlin on Twitter has pointed out to me that taking anyone of these cases (X or AB and C) and hoping whatever legislative solution you come with can answer the lot is a moot point until we see the proposals.