On 12th July, 2013, by 127 (80%) votes for to 31 votes against, the Dáil passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which allows access to abortion on the grounds of immediate danger to the woman’s life and/or clear suicidal intent on her part and specifies some severe penalties (14 years imprisonment) for procuring abortions on any other grounds. There is no provision for abortion if the mother’s health is simply endangered, rather than severely imperilled, and no possibility of allowing legal abortion in the case of rape, under age pregnancy, pregnancy arising from incest or fatal foetal abnormality. Nor is there any question of allowing a woman freedom of choice whether to continue a pregnancy.
While it’s a relief that the Irish government has acted at last – a mere 21 years after the X case, the provisions of this bill fall far short of what is needed for a humane approach to women experiencing the major difficulties that can arise with a pregnancy. Indeed 6 of the 31 ‘No’ votes were due to the legislators’ belief that the Bill did not go far enough. As an example of what the current legal limitations can mean for ordinary women, let’s consider the case of Deirdre Conroy. At 17 weeks pregnancy, she was advised that she was carrying twins; one dead and one suffering a chromosomal disorder so severe that its death shortly after birth was inevitable. After her doctor explained that there was nothing that could be done to help her ‘in this country’, she joined the estimated annual exodus of 4,000 women leaving Ireland to obtain an abortion and had her pregnancy terminated in Belfast. She took her case to the European courts where the Irish government said in its defence that she could have got an abortion in Ireland had she appealed to the courts. She estimated that this (far from certain) process would have taken at least 5 weeks to reach a decision while she got to 23 weeks pregnancy carrying a dead foetus and its unviable twin. As the law now stands, Deirdre would still need to buy a train ticket. Dublin’s Well Woman Centre commented that they saw women in Deirdre’s position regularly and that
‘In a matter of minutes, this diagnosis turns a much wanted pregnancy into a personal crisis and the woman must grapple with the pain of knowing her baby will die in utero, or will be born dead, or will die shortly thereafter.’
Rather than wait for weeks to miscarry, while at the same time growing ever more visibly pregnant, many of these women simply do what Deirdre had to do and go outside Ireland for a safe, legal termination. This ground for abortion alone accounts for about 1,500 of the 4,000 women known to travel to Britain annually. Unlike most of her male colleagues, Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power quoted Deirdre Conroy’s case in the Seanad debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and commented.
‘It is absolutely barbaric and inhumane to inflict that type of torture on people.’
Many ordinary Irish people agree with her – in a June 2013 opinion poll (Irish Times/IPSOS/MBRI Opinion Poll), 83% of respondents said that abortion should be allowed when the foetus cannot survive outside the womb. This proportion closely matches the proportion of legislators (84%) who wanted the current abortion legislation, or something more far-reaching.
Returning to the very recent case which finally sparked the Dáil into action – it’s by no means clear that Savita Halapannavar’s life would have been saved had she been forced to wait under this law until her health status changed from simply endangered by a threatened miscarriage and became a full blown, life-threatening case of septicaemia. It appears that Ireland’s legislators still have not grasped that, in medical matters, delay can be fatal.
This Bill has been a long time coming – 21 years to be exact. Twenty one years while women travelled overseas – if they could afford it, or had babies they did not want if they could not – and successive taoisigh opted out of legislating for fear of the political consequences. The performance of the few remaining Fianna Fáil representatives during the debate suggests that their party had no wish to introduce legislation clarifying the grounds for abortion. The fact that there is now a ruling coalition between Labour and Fine Gael almost certainly means that Labour was able to exert enough pressure on Fine Gael to get a Bill up. Unfortunately, the push back from Fine Gael ensured that it was a very restrictive Bill.
What are the arguments that continue to prevent Ireland from dealing with this very sensitive issue in an intelligent, compassionate way? Amongst the minority of legislators (n=25) who thought the Bill was too liberal, Fianna Fáil (in power from 1992 – 2011) was strongly represented. Nor did it go unnoticed that all of those who argued against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill were men. Brian Ó Domhnaill for Fianna Fáil warned that it might open the doors to ‘abortion tourism’ given that no upper gestation limit for abortion has been specified. He also suggested that those with conscientious objections to abortions would object to their taxes going to fund them. Raising the objection of ‘abortion tourism’ in a country where a conservative estimate puts 4,000 women a year going to other countries (mainly England) for abortions seems a little hypocritical!
Another Fianna Fáil representative, Jim Walsh, ran two lines of argument. Firstly, he argued that legalising abortion was against the real interests of women given that it could lead on to ‘post-abortion trauma‘. Symptoms can include drug addiction, alcoholism, self-harm, depression, sex-addiction and suicide apparently. Given that 150,000 Irish women are actually known to have travelled abroad to have an abortion during the last 30 years (and probably many thousands more have done so unnoticed), it’s surprising that Ireland as country continues to function given the high proportion of its female population suffering this severe damage. A reasonable estimate of this vulnerable population would be about 15% of Ireland’s women of childbearing age.
While it’s possible to debate and discuss the accuracy or otherwise of Jim Walsh’s views on post abortion trauma, his subsequent contribution of a gruesome description of a late term abortion was so horrific that Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell described it later as ‘oral porn’. Labour Senator Marie Moloney asked the Cathaoirleach to ‘stop this kind of talking here, there’s no need for it.’ Women present who had experienced late term pregnancy loss found his comments most distressing.
Ultimately the fear-mongering and the conjuring up of gruesome medical scenes failed to move Ireland’s legislators who passed the Bill. It is now expected that it will be signed by the President about the middle of July. Whether it is sufficiently clear and far-reaching to save the lives of Irish women will soon be known.