The outrage over the death of Savita Halappanavar has forced the government to seriously consider legislating for abortion for the first time in Irish history – albeit on a very restricted basis.
The report of the “expert group” on this issue outlines a range of options. But it now seems inescapable that the government has to introduce primary legislation. It also seems unlikely they will allow a ‘free’ vote which would permit particularly conservative Fine Gael TDs to vote against. It is incredible that legislators voting to allow abortion to save a woman’s life would cause such consternation, but that is how backward the Irish political establishment is. Voting to cut respite care, child benefit or home helps is, of course, perfectly acceptable. It is a testament to the huge anger and mood in society that the Government is likely to be pushed to legislate in some way for the X Case. The potential for this step forward flows from the scandalous and tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the huge response it provoked among people, showed most graphically in the 20,000 strong demonstrations on the weekend after her gross mistreatment was bravely publicised by her husband, Praveen.
This historic demonstration, comprised in the main of women and men in their 20s and 30s, reflecting the fact that public attitudes to abortion have evolved lights years beyond the cowardly, conservative, out of touch politicians.
The Socialist Party favours and argues for the immediate introduction of free and safe abortion facilities through the health service for all who require them. A majority of Irish people now not only support legislation for the X Case, but would see this as the very minimum of what is needed. But legislation along the lines of the X ruling would not necessarily have meant that Savita would have got the termination that she requested and so we believe it is necessary to argue and fight for more.
There must be a particular challenge to the idea contained in the X ruling that a women’s health can or should be counter posed to her life. We believe that an overwhelming majority are opposed to any idea that there is a threshold of suffering, pain and torture to which women would be subjected before being allowed a termination of pregnancy.
By winning broad support that a women’s health, not just her life, matters, we will be responding concretely to the actual events around Savita’s case but also will be broadening out the understanding and support for the basis upon which abortions should be carried out in this country. Broadening out the debate beyond X and building support and pressure for more grounds for abortion rights in Ireland is actually the best way to force the backward political establishment to actually legislate for X in the fullest of terms.
Last week Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, put an amendment to the Sinn Fein motion which called for legislation to give effect to the X Case ruling. The amendment argued that the physical and mental health of women should also be legislated for, as well as abortion for cases of rape and incest. It argued that health and life are indistinguishable and that a national debate should be initiated on these issues, including on whatever constitutional change is required to introduce legal, safe abortion where a woman’s health is at risk.
In 1983, a reactionary and backward clause, the 8th amendment, was inserted into the Constitution. This clause equates the ‘right to life’ of an unborn embryo or foetus with the life of the woman. This is a form of constitutional ban on abortion, and is in effect, a sickening denigration of a woman’s health, rights and choices.
Incredibly, Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter on “Morning Ireland” on 28 November said in relation to situations such as when a pregnant woman’s health is endangered by pregnancy, as opposed to her life: “When men in this country require medical treatment there are no barriers to their obtaining it…In these particular areas, for example, there are barrier to women obtaining treatment and in that sense they are less equal as citizens in one particular area of our life.”
Minister Shatter in effect admitted that inequality exists, and is written into the Constitution and thus effects the medical treatment of women. And yet we are supposed to accept this?
Dr. Peter Moylan, consultant obstetrician / gynaecologist at the National Maternity Hospital wrote in the Sunday Business Post on 25 November about instances such as Eisenmenger’s Syndrome, which he describes as “a complex cardiac condition associated with a 50 per cent mortality rate in pregnancy. Everyone’s attitude towards risk differs, and some may regard a 50 per cent chance of mortality as insufficient to justify a termination of pregnancy, while for others, this presents a very substantial risk.”
The denigration of women’s health, rights and choices contained in the 8th amendment has to go. The Socialist Party believes there has been real development of consciousness on abortion and that the case for repealing the 8th Amendment to the Constitution – which equates an embryo or foetus with a woman – if fought on a principled basis can be won. The Medical Termination Bill to legislate for the X Case was reintroduced to the Dail by Clare Daly TD, during United Left Alliance Private Member’s time. The Socialist Party, while recognising that legislating for X would be an important step forward, raised within the ULA that there was a strong case for broadening out the Bill rather than limiting it to the very narrow confines of X.
The political argument for confining it to X was that it would be constitutional and therefore would be a vote on something that could be quickly implemented and that would put Labour under additional pressure, badly exposed if they voted against. This is quite short-term however. Labour are already exposed on this issue, particularly since they voted against the bill when it was originally tabled in April.
If the ULA had amended the Bill to cater for the obvious realities of the Savita case, i.e. with a new section on women’s health, this could have garnered huge publicity and discussion in wider society and really taken the debate forward. Similarly, cases of rape and incest, cases of foetal abnormalities are not covered by the X Case – cases that the clear majority of ordinary people support access free, safe and legal abortions in Ireland need to be brought into the debate.
In this way, legislation for the X case falls short of, not just of what women need, but of where consciousness now is. The need to challenge and expose Labour in our view doesn’t match the benefit of taking the opportunity to broaden the debate beyond X and so restating the Bill from April was a lost opportunity in our view.
For Labour and the Government overall, it’s essential that the debate is narrowed as much as possible. They need a scenario whereby the debate is around whether or not to legislate for X, whether or not suicide should be considered a ‘real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother and be grounds for termination (i.e. again within the constraints of the X Case ruling), as they will not go further.
While supporting the grounds contained in X, the left and the burgeoning pro-choice struggle must ensure that the debate is NOT narrowed in this way. The debate must raise all the realities – the right to health, cases of rape and incest, the tragic scenario of unviable foetuses and also raise about the rights of the 11 women per day on average who are traveling to Britain to access a termination for a whole number of other reasons.
In terms of the pro-choice campaign, there has been a massive public response to the vigils and protests, reflecting a real progression in attitudes. The Socialist Party has played a part in a number of areas in setting up pro-choice groups and held many public meetings.
However, it would obviously be desirable to have one cohesive campaign, with affiliates in every town, city and suburb, to push for abortion legislation. We advocated that, while thousands were active and energised on this issue, such a campaign was timely. In the broad campaign we argued strongly that something needed to be started before Xmas and proposed 8 December as at date for a meeting.
A national public meeting has now been arranged in Dublin on December 8th from 12pm – 3pm in the Gresham Hotel, with a view to launching such a campaign. This is a very welcome move. It’s a vital meeting for all the women and men who want to make a difference on this issue to attend and participate in order to build the strongest campaign possible that’s capable of fighting for a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment so that abortion rights can be legislated for.
Given how out of touch this government is – note their ham-fisted approach in setting up an inquiry with three doctors from the hospital in question – it’s very likely legislation will be absolutely minimal, an attempt to restrict suicide as grounds can’t be ruled out. It will be vital to have an active campaign with real roots in every area, college and union to put the pressure on Labour in particular on this.
The announcement of the setting up of a campaign will be a significant ratcheting up of the pressure on the politicians. The energy and commitment of the thousands who took to the streets must be harnessed in this campaign to win a significant advancement in the fight to have the right to choose abortion within our own country.