Some revealing attitudes in the debates on equal marriage and abortion either side of the border this week.
Last night the heads of the proposed Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 were published in Dublin (full details here courtesy of the Journal.ie). Initial reaction has been mixed on both the pro-choice and anti-abortion sides, with most emphasis on the decision-making process being resolved to unanimous agreement between three psychiatrists (not the six suggested during last week’s flag-flying exercise) in cases where the pregnancy, or circumstances of the pregnancy, is prompting suicidal ideation in the woman.
Not that that is particularly clear from the public debate around what is actually happening here, which is legislating to comply with the X and ABC case rulings, requiring clarity in the guidelines for doctors when a termination of pregnancy is required by medical circumstances, including where suicide is a risk. The Iona Institute and Life Institute, effectively religious lobby groups, are quoted by the Irish Times as emphasising the issue of suicide but representing it rather crassly as one where somehow abortion is being used as a ‘treatment for suicide’ (as opposed to something closer to my description above). On the other hand, pro-choice groups are still concerned that the proposed methodology is deliberately unwieldy and designed to put off women. They are also noting that in any case it is a medical practitioner, rather than the woman, who makes the decision on whether the pregnancy can be terminated and that the Act includes unduly severe penalties for anyone in breach. Many instances, such as a foetal abnormality, pregnancy due to rape or incest or non-viable foetuses still appear to be excluded by the proposed Act.
The most ironical references in the current abortion debate are by those who claim that any acceptance of legislation for terminations or abortions will ‘open the floodgates’. Reports of the most recent statistics, for 2011, show that 4,149 Irish women travelled to Britain for abortions in that year. That’s about 80 women a week, meaning all of the pressure being brought to bear to prevent legislation to even comply with the European and Supreme Court rulings on ABC and X is purely a vanity project to avoid official acknowledgement of the reality around abortion in Ireland.
In the parallel universe that is Stormont, further attempts to extend the right to
be unhappily married equal marriage to gay couples has failed again. Patrick Corrigan, of Amnesty International, has identified the potential unBritishness of it all, saying:
“States may not discriminate with regards to the right to marry and found a family, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That obligation is clear in international law. This means that marriage should be available to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland just as it appears it soon will be in other parts of the UK… Should politicians fail to act, there could be a straightforward legal challenge on the basis of inferior treatment of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland with regards to the right to marry and found a family.”
There is provision for civil partnerships but not same-sex marriage in the south at the minute either, just as the abortion provision in the north (and the attitude towards it) is closer to the south than Britain. Amid the standard protestations over identity and economics (despite the fact that Stormont eternally and, Leinster House, regularly, relies on the financial kindness of strangers), public debates over issues like abortion and equal marriage reveal the shared moral values and conservatism that dominates society on both sides of the border. Uncomfortably for unionists, it exposes attitudes they hold dear that resonate very deeply in the south but barely, if at all, in Britain.
This is all the more ironic given that the parties that operate on an all-island basis like Sinn Féin, the Greens, éirígí, the Workers Party and People Before Profit all support the progressive rather than conservative side of the debates.