Within weeks, hospitals in Ireland could, for the first time, begin performing abortions. It comes after Irish President Michael D. Higgins signed a controversial piece of legislation that the government insists allows for abortion only in limited circumstances, but that pro-lifers argue permits an extremely liberal abortion regime.
A brief statement from Higgins July 27 confirmed that the president had signed the so-called Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. Ironically, his endorsement of the law may well prove to be a blessing for pro-life advocates. Under the 1937 Irish Constitution, the president is vested with very little power and is virtually obliged to sign laws that have passed parliament. However, in a little-used constitutional provision, the president does have the power to refer laws to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality before signing. Had Higgins opted to refer the law to the Court, this would’ve delayed the passage of the bill. However, if the Supreme Court ruled that the law was in keeping with the Constitution, the bill would be forever immune to challenge. President Higgins’ decision to sign without reference to the Supreme Court clears the way for those opposed to abortion to challenge the law.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny, whose claim that he supports abortion in some circumstances because he is pro-life have led some pro-lifers to accuse him of verbal acrobatics, has not survived the passage of the law unscathed. A number of his government legislators were expelled from his center-right Fine Gael party for refusing to support abortion, which may weaken Kenny’s overall position at the head of the country’s coalition government.
Veteran pro-life campaigners describe the passage of the law as a dark day for Ireland. But, in a country where a ban on abortion was sometimes taken for granted, the campaign may also have emboldened and united opponents of abortion as never before. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to campaign in favor of protecting the unborn and more than 100,000 people signed pledges saying they will never again support the Prime Minister’s party because of his breaking a pre-election promise not to legalize abortion. Prominent obstetricians and psychiatrists have also voiced their opposition to the controversial proposals. Church leaders, after almost 20 years of virtual silence on moral issues due to the clerical abuse scandals, have also appeared to regain their voices.
The current debate has been politically divisive, and many voters have found themselves struggling to find the balance between the need for mothers to receive lifesaving treatments during pregnancy and the necessity of upholding the right to life of the unborn child in the womb.
Abortion has traditionally been illegal in Ireland under the provision of the pre-Independence 1981 Offences Against the Person Act. In 1983, the people voted by a two-to-one margin to insert a specific article in the Constitution outlining the existence of an equal right to life for both the mother and her unborn child. However, less than a decade later this article was interpreted by the Supreme Court to include the right to an abortion in certain circumstances. That judgment, known as the “X” Case, found that there is a constitutional right to abortion where there is a substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide, up to birth.
Successive governments have not acted on the issue. However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify when women can access abortion under the 1992 ruling. The ECHR found that Ireland had a right to ban abortion, but must clarify the 1992 ruling.
Campaigners have insisted that the 1992 ruling is flawed, pointing to the fact that the Supreme Court had no medical evidence in the case. They also insist that there is no medical evidence to show that abortion ever helps in cases of suicidal intent.
Former Prime Minister John Bruton weighed into the debate over the proposed abortion law last spring, warning that any plan to provide abortion in cases where a woman is suicidal is wrong. Bruton said there was no other area of law in which a threat of suicide is “sufficient to make legal what would otherwise be illegal.”
Nonetheless, the government pushed the legislation through, insisting that it was necessary to save women’s lives, a claim rejected by pro-life campaigners as well as many in the medical community.
Under the new law, a woman will be able to have abortion if there is considered to be a real and substantial risk to her life. This has caused widespread confusion, with many voters concerned that pregnant Irishwomen faced with a life-threatening conditions may not receive essential treatments. However, pro-life campaigners and medical experts have pointed out that Ireland ranks among the best in the world when it comes to maternal health. This confusion, often aided and abetted by a largely pro-abortion media, reigned supreme following the death of a pregnant woman late last year, with pro-choice campaigners blaming the lack of legal abortion for the woman’s death. Savita Halappanavar—a native of India who moved to the west of Ireland some years ago—was 17 weeks pregnant when she went to the hospital on October 21, 2012, complaining about back pain. A week later she had died from septicaemia, a blood infection.
A report published on June 13, 2013 identified three key factors behind Halappanavar’s death: inadequate assessment and monitoring; failure to offer all management options to a patient; and non-adherence to clinical guidelines related to the prompt and effective management of sepsis. But, by this stage, abortion laws had been drafted and many believed them necessary to save the lives of women in similar cases.
Senator Ronan Mullen, an independent member of the Upper House of Parliament and longtime pro-life advocate, believes there was a need to provide legal clarity to medical personnel, but says this could have been achieved without legalizing direct abortion. He argued the government should have prepared appropriate guidelines, saying, “We are going to provide to guarantee all necessary interventions for physical conditions that a mother may have.”
Senator Mullen pointed out that of the almost 200,000 abortions in Britain every year, 95 percent take place on mental health grounds. “This is an extremely dangerous place that Ireland may be going,” he said.
Mullen says the government abortion bill moves away from the traditional “two patient model of care” currently available in Irish maternity hospitals for pregnant women and their unborn children.
Under the new law, the procedures for assessing the risk to the life of the mother differ depending on the woman’s condition, Mullen said. One doctor will be able to make a decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy in an emergency situation in which a mother’s life is in danger. Where there is the risk of loss of a woman’s life from physical illness—but where the situation is not an emergency and suicidal intent is not a factor—two doctors will be called upon to make the decision. However, in cases of suicidal intent, the woman will be interviewed by a panel of three doctors—two psychiatrists and one obstetrician—who must agree unanimously.
Caroline Simons, a legal adviser to the Pro-Life Campaign, has described the passage of the abortion bill as “a very sad day for our country.” Simons told Catholic World Report that the law “for the first time in our history makes it legal to deliberately target the life of an innocent human being.”
She dismissed claims by Prime Minister Enda that the law is about saving women’s lives. “The new law is life-ending, not life-saving,” Simons said. “The Government brought forward this law in the full knowledge that abortion is not a treatment for suicidal feelings and ignored all the peer-reviewed evidence showing that abortion has adverse mental health consequences for women.”
Simons vowed that the Irish pro-life movement “will now devote its energies to the repeal of this unjust law. We will give very careful consideration in the coming weeks on the best way to bring this about.”
One legislator who has won rich praise for her stance is former Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton. Creighton’s decision to oppose the law provoked the ire of Prime Minister Kenny to such a degree that he convened a hastily-arranged Cabinet meeting in the middle of the night to fire her from ministerial office. Creighton was among seven legislators who lost their jobs because of their pro-life stance.
After her late-night dismissal, an emotional Creighton told reporters: “I never wished or expected to be expelled from the Fine Gael parliamentary party. This is the party I have worked for unstintingly since I was 18 years old.”
“I feel deeply and strongly that aspects of this bill are based on flawed logic and absolutely zero medical evidence. I could not vote for it, particularly in light of Fine Gael’s clear commitment not to introduce abortion prior to the last election,” she said.
Creighton later elaborated on her stance, insisting that “promises matter in politics, particularly in relation to matters of life and death. This is a promise I could not renege on in any circumstances.”
It is a stance not lost of pro-life activists. Dr. Ruth Cullen, a medical adviser to the Pro-Life Campaign, is in philosophical mood after the signing of the bill into law. “When the chips were down we saw men and women of the highest moral caliber vote against the bill.”
“They may be few, but the effects of their historic witness should not be underestimated. They kept their word. Democracy rests on this. We won’t forget them. We salute you for your conviction, your courage and your character,” she said.
The role of the mainstream media in cheerleading the legislation has come in for much scrutiny. John Waters, a prominent author who has chronicled his journey from liberalism to conservatism and Catholicism, believes things were stacked against the pro-life side.
“In the past 30 years there has been a handful of real-life public controversies in which the issue of abortion was critical in the life of an actual woman. And yet, the pro-choice [movement], building on this handful of cases, and augmenting its arguments with a series of creative hypotheses has, in effect, changed Ireland from being a nation inflexibly opposed to abortion to a society on the cusp of giving the nod to one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world.”
According to Waters, the recent debate on abortion “confirms that this is going to happen, and there is no point in sticking our heads in the sand.”
“Given the conditions in which these ‘debates’ occur, this is inevitable and cannot be prevented,” he said. “For one thing, the ‘debates’ are almost invariably hosted by ‘liberal’ journalists, and, for another, the skewed dynamics of the ‘debates’ ensure that these are really dramas in which traditionalist forces are pitted against liberals in a manner than ensures only the liberal argument can win.”
“It is not so much a question of testing both sides of an argument as dramatizing the victory of ‘truth’ over ‘error,’” Waters insisted.
Amid the gloom, opponents of abortion can take some consolation. In recent months the pro-life community has become electrified and united in Ireland as never before, prompting the massive vigils and rallies that allowed the pro-life movement to see itself publicly for the first time—its youthfulness, its commitment, and its energy.
The Catholic bishops have also shown a determination to lead that has been absent for quite some time. The new coadjutor archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, who will soon take over as Primate of All-Ireland from Cardinal Sean Brady, is widely credited with being a competent media performer on the issue. His media outings appear to have emboldened other bishops and Church spokesmen to speak out decisively. The Irish-American papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, has also played a pivotal role. Whereas in the past, papal nuncios have preferred to keep out of political debates, Archbishop Brown has been forthright in his criticism of the new law.
So for these and other reasons, opponents of abortion remain determined. Referring to recent rallies against the legislation that saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets, Caroline Simons insists that “the pro-life movement is mobilized and growing. We have seen the biggest-ever gatherings of pro-life people in recent weeks.”
“The passage of this bill into law marks a new beginning, not an end, for pro-life activism,” she said.