So in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy, the Irish government rushes through legislation which… Would have done nothing to avert the Savita Halappanavar tragedy. We are left to explain this to a mystified world.
What they’ve done is take advantage of the mood to enact law that has been missing for two decades. In the X Case the Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, introduced by anti-abortion campaigners to create a right to life for the unborn equal to the life of the pregnant woman, had the weird but logical consequence, where a pregnancy threatened both, of requiring abortion to be legal.
No government however had the political guts to enact this – until now. In the meantime we were left in an untenable limbo where not only was the law in conflict with the Constitution, but it was unclear whether or not one could save a woman’s life without going to prison. Medical professionals probably did intervene in ways that resulted in the death of foetuses, but had to do so almost clandestinely, studiously avoiding words like “abortion” or “termination”. We don’t know if this fear, uncertainty and doubt contributed to Savita’s death. (We may after the malpractice suit.) We do know though that the new law still does not allow the termination of a non-viable pregnancy like hers, an operation which she requested and which would have saved her life. The life of a foetus – even one that cannot survive – is still legally equal to hers.
So if the general thrust of this legislation was simply to clarify what the Supreme Court’s judgement had already made legal reality, why was there so much concerted opposition? There are a few reasons, the most prominent being that the danger of suicide was considered by the court to be a threat to life. Anti-abortion campaigners see in this a trojan horse. Soon women would be claiming to be suicidal to get an abortion when they weren’t really suicidal at all, merely desperate enough to pretend to be.
Yes it is all a bit strange.
But when it comes down to it, the main reason is of course belief. The Eighth Amendment was thirty years ago. In these slightly more sophisticated times, few admit to being motivated purely by religion. Dana, speaking on Tonight with Vincent Brown, weirdly attempted to justify her anti-abortion views with science. An embryo is a person because “All the DNA is there” – as if a plan is the same thing as the finished building.
Having a preconceived belief and misrepresenting the facts to fit it is of course the precise opposite of science. Complete opposition to abortion requires a supernatural mindset. You have to maintain that from the very beginning, the developing foetus has rights separate from and (at least) equal to those of the woman it is developing within – a difficult position to hold unless you subscribe to the idea that humanity arrives complete at the moment of conception by some miraculous process.
Which, as it should happen, is what Catholics and some other conservative Christian groups teach.
People are entitled to their beliefs of course. A huge proportion of Irish women could but do not avail of abortion services overseas, precisely because they have this outlook. Beliefs become a problem though when you try to make other people live by yours. You don’t have that right, even if you are a minister or TD. Especially if you are a minister or TD. All that can ever be enforced is what a society, by overwhelming consensus, accepts as necessary. And our law on this issue no longer reflects any such consensus. Perhaps a majority still believe that human life begins at conception, but few even of those are so dogmatic as to insist that this early life is equal in importance and humanity to that of the woman it abides within. Experience has shown this to be not a reasonable precept but a dangerous religious dogma foisted upon us by extremists.
The government did do right, but it did the least possible right. No one was ever really in favour of the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Bill, few are celebrating its passage. It’s just a workaround, a patch for the contradictions that will ensue from enshrining the equality of women and embryos in a Constitution. There will be more horrific situations, there will be more bad and unworkable law that no one really wants, until the day comes when we finally have the courage to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
(Apologies to mailing list subscribers who were accidentally sent a much earlier draft of this post.)