Mend The Constitution

Pregnancy in the 26th week.

Over four thousand women from Ireland are known to have obtained an abortion in England or Wales last year, a figure that probably under-represents the true numbers significantly. Why are they having abortions abroad and not here?

If you could sum it up in a single word, that word would be “hypocrisy”.

We have a hypocritical Constitutional ban that has the effect not of preventing abortion, but of making it someone else’s problem. It allows us to pretend it hardly happens at all, that we live by higher ideals. In fact, we live a lie.

And oddly, to an extent it is not even our own hypocrisy. The amendment was the result of a manipulative campaign coming largely from overseas, particularly the British organisation SPUC, that intended to make Ireland a showcase for Conservative Christian values. They wanted to prove it was possible, despite the examples of the US, UK and most of Western Europe, for abortion to be banned in a country where women had a vote.

Yes, a clear majority disapproved of abortion. They don’t necessarily approve of enforced birth either though. Irish people are no strangers to moral complexity and contradiction, and even if doctrinal absolutes came easy in those post-Papal-visit days they would not have stayed that way for long. But the amendment to the constitution stifled that moral debate by rendering it pointless.

It still stifles it. Even now we are hung up – insanely – on whether a danger of suicide constitutes a legitimate threat to the life of a pregnant woman. Of course suicidal feelings are a real threat to life, but some want to pretend the danger away in case it is used as a pretext to give abortions to those who merely want them.

This is all mad. Why are we trying to force women to give birth when, for whatever reason, they do not want to give birth? Only remorseless ideology produces such inhumane law.

Ah but the unborn are people, you can’t kill them!

Except they are not. That is just a religious doctrine, a philosophical view, forced into our Constitution to make hypocrites of all of us. Who is to say at what point human life begins? We could leave the decision to priests, to doctors or scientists. But I think instead we should leave it up to the woman who has to bring that life into the world.

Who else’s decision should it be?

This Is How It Begins

James Reilly (in front of microphones).
Dr James Reilly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What James Reilly did was nothing special, just politics as usual. That’s precisely why he has to go. What passes for usual politics in this country is the whole problem. Politics as usual is what we threw Fianna Fáil out for.

James Reilly is our Minister for Health, in case you’re wondering. For the moment at least. And believe it or not, this has little or nothing to do with the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. There was a time when, as an actual doctor running the health service instead of a career politician, he seemed like a breath of fresh air. That chapter was brief, its ending a few months ago decidedly anticlimactic. His Labour party junior at the Department gave up, accusing him of manipulating health service priorities to bring investment and facilities to his own constituency. Documents released now appear to confirm this.

Is that not just the inevitable outcome of representative democracy? People expect their reps to bring back the goods. A little thumb on the scales.

No. A TD is not a warrior-champion, not a hunter. We’re sending them to Dublin to represent us there, not to loot it. Government tends to look away when a minister slips some spoils to the folks back home. It helps keep the seat safe at the next election. For ministers, it helps them keep their job and its lavish pay – not to mention its influence. Public money is diverted for their personal benefit in an only very slightly indirect way. In other words, it’s corruption. The sort of endemic, omnipresent corruption we used to mistake for normality.

But this is not a victimless crime. Favouring his own constituency disfavours the rest of the country. By taking a hospital from where it’s needed most to where it’s needed less he’s reducing someone’s chances of survival – and doing it for his own gain. Just like the worst sort of career politician.

We have had enough of this. He’s got to go.

We Submit

And you thought I never went inside a church.

Woah. Well we got our term assignment project in. I have to admit, it was a pretty messy last-minute rush. Which is funny because it’s about Project Management, and in it we go to great lengths to display our knowledge of all the techniques and methods you can use to make sure that your project is not a messy last-minute rush. The irony is intoxicating.

Kinda head-wrecking too. It’s a project, about doing a project. It’s our Project Management project management project… project? I can’t tell any more. To make it worse still, there is no real project involved. I mean, it is a real project. But our real project is to describe a project we had to make up – ours was installing a computer system into a retirement home.

We didn’t actually get to create a system that elderly people would be depending on, thankfully. But we did have to research and understand the obstacles we would face if we did. So we went around and asked questions to a lot of real retirement home owners and staff, who were all very helpful. That was a good exercise, but still it was weirdly detached from reality. In an actual job like this, what would you be spending most of your time thinking about? Your client of course. Trying to please the bastard. We had no client. One of the members of our team tried to pretend, but it’s just not the same. Her interests are our interests.

So our objective, in our project about our imaginary project, was to please ourselves. No wonder it was hard to keep focused.

Incidentally, the picture has nothing to do with the post – as far as I know. I just thought it was time I used it. It’s a lovely brass electric candle-offering machine from a church in Castlebar, Mayo. You put in money, press a button. and that’s lighting a candle for someone or something. Oddly un-prayerlike, but kind of beautiful nonetheless.

Ireland's Abortion Law

Several people have asked me how our laws can directly contradict our own Supreme Court, which ruled that a pregnancy may be terminated when it threatens the woman’s life. How was this disconnect allowed to continue until somebody died? It’s not easy to explain, but I gave it my best shot.

It’s a constitutional impasse. The Supreme Court cannot force the introduction of a law, nor can it strike down existing legislation. It can only reject as unconstitutional bills referred to it by the President before signing. So the existing law – a blanket criminalization of abortion (for which the penalty is life imprisonment!) – stands, even if it is in conflict with the constitution.

The government has a clear duty to amend the law to reflect the Constitution – indeed, has had that clear duty for 20 years now – but legislature is meant to be the sovereign voice of the people so nothing has the power to force it to legislate, and neither major party wants to handle the political poison chalice of abortion. Even with the Catholic Church in general disrepute, religious observance at an all-time low, and polls showing strong support for abortion in some circumstances, framing the legislation would still spark huge ideological conflict in the conservative grassroots of both. And it takes a lot to shift the idea that abortion = killing BABIES, especially with religious right organizations able to wallpaper the country with pictures of cute foetuses at will. (They’re not short of funds, they have strong links with the religious right in the US.)

In 2010 however three women brought a case to the European Court Of Human Rights, which basically told the government that pretending a major women’s rights issue would just sort of somehow go away was not acceptable. And so it did what governments do – commissioned an inquiry to elect a commission to create a report, so weakening their identification with the eventual legislation, and of course delaying the fateful day a little longer.

A little too long for Savita Halappanavar.

The bitter irony for the religious right is that it’s the “Pro-life” amendment they campaigned for back in 1983, in the hope of keeping out a (then) rising tide of liberalism, that makes the antediluvian abortion law unconstitutional – because it describes an equal right to life for the woman¹. They didn’t want any woman’s right to be mentioned of course. They would probably have been happy with the innocent foetus having a prior right to existence over a necessarily sinful adult woman. Relatively sane legislators at least managed to insert this in the process of framing a constitutional amendment bill. But in a horrific case in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that the suicidal feelings of a pregnant child rape victim constituted a threat to her life, so making that grounds for an abortion.

The religious right saw this as a potential – even deliberate – opening for abortion on demand. Now all a woman would need to do is say she felt a bit low and she’d get an abortion. So they actually campaigned to amend their amendment to explicitly discount suicide as a danger to the woman’s life.

Naturally the populace rejected this. We’ve heard about the judgement of Solomon.

When we rejected it, they tried to introduce it again. We rejected it again.

And you know what makes this all surreal and ridiculous? There is abortion available on demand in Ireland, and has been for decades. Not within Ireland, no. But a twenty minute plane ride away. You can go to Britain² or many other parts of the EU. I don’t claim this doesn’t put significant obstacles in the way, especially of poorer women, but thousands obtain terminations every year. Our bizarrely dated, draconian law prevents hardly any abortions at all.

Not that the religious right hasn’t tried to change this as well. When it was established that a woman in certain circumstances – i.e, she might die – was legally entitled to the abortion she couldn’t legally have here, they campaigned to prevent woman travelling abroad to have abortions, or obtaining information about abortion services in other countries. In a way it’s a shame they didn’t get their way. If women were being given ultrasound scans in the airports, if we had Internet filters to block sites that mention abortion, if adverts were cut out of papers and magazines, then their illiberal ideological madness would have been seen for what it was. We’d probably have abortion on demand here now. The ideological posturing survives because in reality it makes little difference.

Unless of course you are too sick to travel.

Sorry for that excursion through the history of nasty. We now reach the current situation, where things have been finessed with “guidelines” for medical practice – essentially, a life-saving medical procedure that inadvertently kills a foetus is not an abortion. Which seems all quite humane – until you have a situation like Savita Halappanavar’s, where terminating her pregnancy was not an operation necessary to save her life but merely one that would have reduced a hard-to-quantify risk to her life. Now I think a sane person would say that if the foetus cannot survive then there is zero conceptual, never mind moral, reason not to abort. Unfortunately the law as it stands was not created by any sane process.

But as luck would have it, the report I mentioned has just been completed and is about to be published – right into this storm of moral outrage. I am cautiously confident that things will change now.

²Or “the mother” as the amendment calls her, in some quite extraordinarily loaded language.
²Britain rather than the UK advisedly, as in a weird cross-border mirroring, abortion is also illegal in Northern Ireland. Presbyterians seem no more hot on women’s rights than Catholics.

Galway's Vigil for Savita

This evening I stood for an hour in Eyre Square Galway thinking of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist who died in hospital here. While investigations are ongoing, it appears that she was refused the termination of an already miscarried pregnancy, a procedure that might have saved her life. There seems little room for doubt that this was an avoidable tragedy caused by our wholly inadequate laws.

This is the hospital I go to when I get sick. Where my mother gets regular check-ups. Where my father was pronounced dead. It is the hospital attached to the University where I study science now, where I once took courses in women’s rights. I’ve always had confidence in it and its staff. But they made decisions here that were not based on medicine, but on a certain doctrinal viewpoint. That is wrong.

If they made an immoral choice though, they made it under the threat of an immoral law. Or we should say an immoral absence of law, thanks to one political leadership after another running scared from its duty to enact legislation clarifying this issue, and despite a Supreme Court judgement that found a blanket ban on abortion unconstitutional twenty years ago.

So what is the legal position on medical abortion in Ireland? Frankly your guess is as good as mine. According to the Constitution:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This seems to suggest that there are circumstances in which a pregnancy can be terminated in order to save a woman’s life, and in practice this can happen. An ectopic pregnancy – the condition where the embryo implants and begins to develop outside the uterus – will be removed without compunction. It would be monstrous to give an embryo which could never survive the same rights as the woman it would inevitably kill.

And yet Savita’s foetus had no hope of survival and the threat to her life, while not certain, was severe. Why was a non-viable pregnancy allowed to cause her unimaginable distress leading almost certainly to her death – were they hoping a miracle would somehow save its life?

No. They did not terminate the pregnancy because they didn’t consider they had the right to. The foetus was a person with an inviolable right to life, so the fact that it was going to die was not morally relevant; you can’t kill people just because they’re going to die soon anyway. Only in circumstances where it was absolutely certain that the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to the woman’s death could they have moved to end it, and outside clear-cut cases like ectopic pregnancy such certainty is of course rare.

So they went instead with the moral – but wholly fictitious – certainty that the foetus was a human being with a right to life that must be respected, and Savita Halappanavar died.

The idea that human life begins at conception is not a scientific fact. Nor is it ancient knowledge – conception was only understood fairly recently. It is a doctrine. We might as easily consider human life to begin with the first breath. (Indeed that used to be the belief.) We might consider that it begins at some point between conception and birth, even that it begins before conception in some spiritual realm. But a foetus is not a baby any more than the separate sperm and ovum is, and to treat it like one is just a doctrinal fantasy. Enforcing that fantasy on real people can only lead to tragedy.

The Price Of Victory

Think of it as the world’s worst industrial accident

It’s a little weird if you tune into a British TV show around this time. Everyone is wearing red paper poppies in commemoration of soldiers killed by wars in general, and what is still sometimes called the Great War in particular. Strange, not just because they happen to be fighting one even as they mourn the tragedy of it all, but because debate rages over this conflict even today. Was it, as some argue, a stupid and pointless waste of human lives? Or as others say, an utterly mindless massacre of innocent people? We may never know for sure.

There really have been attempts recently to rehabilitate this war. It was once common to explain it as a tragic chain of circumstances. Surely such a terrible tragedy could only have been unintentional.

But it is becoming more common now to hear that, far from being accidental or tragic, it was a necessary and even heroic action to curtail the ambition of a warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Is that true? It certainly is a more positive way to see it.

The only problem is, it differs from the British propaganda of the time in almost no respect.

Yes, Germany had been getting more belligerent. Wilhelm was indeed a war-happy idiot, childishly envious of his cousin’s ships. His empire had been growing in wealth and strength rapidly since its formation nearly half a century before, and was eager for opportunities to flex its muscles. That opportunity came with what might otherwise have been a local Balkan conflict, as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires scrambled for the territory of the (even more) moribund Ottoman one. Turning it into a Europe-wide conflict gave Germany a chance to elbow aside France and dominate the continent.

True enough. The only problem with this narrative is that the British in their turn were only too happy to escalate a European conflict into the first ever global war.

Having pioneered industrial manufacturing Britain was still the greatest power on Earth. It had however watched the rise of German industry, technology, and military might with trepidation. The imitator looked like it would one day outstrip the master. An arms race had being going on for over a decade and some believed that war with Germany was inevitable – and that therefore the sensible (if Machiavellian) choice would be to have one sooner rather than later. This is really the only way to explain why the largest empire in the world went to war over the invasion of Belgium. I mean think about it. They couldn’t have liked chocolate that much. Britain was eager for war. We often hear that they kept saying it would “all be over by Christmas”. What we forget is that they said this because they liked to think of the Germans as a bunch of primitives they could crush without much effort.

Without the entrance of history’s largest empire into the conflict, what would have happened? We can never know of course – hell, we can barely know things in the past that did happen, never mind ones that didn’t – but it seems more likely at least that France would’ve fallen and Germany would have been able to concentrate on a war with Russia that might have continued for years. I’m not sure if it’s even technically possible to defeat Russia. How would you know you had?

But eventually Germany probably would have gained hegemony in continental Europe. Big deal. And without its population devastated, Britain would have continued as a global power for much longer. The Russian revolution wouldn’t have happened, the US wouldn’t have had its first taste of global military intervention – or experienced the boom that turned into the Great Depression either. The conditions that gave rise to the Second World War would never have been in place. And of course, millions fewer would have died.

I think there are a couple or lessons here. One is that war is always inevitable if you want it to be. The other is that, it tending to have vast and profoundly unpredictable consequences, it might be better to hold off on war until you really do have no other choice. But that wouldn’t be a welcome message just now.