“Abortion debate steps up as opposing sides hold rallies” proclaimed the Irish Independent on the weekend in a piece that neglected to mention that the pro-life Unite for Life vigil was more than a hundred times larger than the tiny counter-demonstration by the newly-founded Abortion Rights Campaign which aims to introduce abortion on demand in Ireland.
According to Irish police, 25,000 people gathered in Dublin’s Merrion Square on Saturday, bearing banners challenging Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party to keep its election promise not to legalise abortion; only 200 protested nearby, claiming – falsely – that those at the pro-life vigil aimed to deny women legislation necessary to save their lives.
The vigil, Ireland’s largest ever pro-life rally, took place after three days of parliamentary hearings in response to the recently-received Report of the Expert Group on A, B, and C v Ireland.
In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights’ ruled that Ireland required an accessible and effective procedure to enable women to ascertain whether they qualify for legal abortions under the terms permitted by Ireland’s constitution. In 1992 Ireland’s Supreme Court had ruled that pregnancies could be terminated if that was the only possible way of removing a risk to a mother’s life, but this right had remained theoretical, never having been expressed in legislation.
The most contentious part of the 1992 ‘X’ Case involves the Court’s identification of suicidal ideation as grounds for abortion. The Chief Justice said the proper test for determining whether a termination should be permitted was that:
“if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination is permissible, having regard to the true interpretation of Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution.”
The Chief Justice and others then misapplied this test by disregarding the crucial word ‘only’, judging the termination of a suicidal teenager’s pregnancy permissible despite having uncontested evidence that her life could have been protected with proper in-patient supervision and treatment.
In itself Ireland’s government is not obliged to legislate for this, there being no constitutional need to embody in legislation every right the Court identifies; indeed, Ireland’s former prime minister John Bruton is of the view that while the state should move quickly to clarify the obligations of doctors in medical consultations, it should not rush how it handles the suicide issue. Suicide, he says, is so difficult to predict that “devising safeguards that are true to the constitution will be horrendously difficult.”
Nonetheless, following the expert group’s advice, the government intends to legislate for abortion. The first day of hearings heard submissions from medical experts, the second from legal ones, and the third from other interested parties including religious bodies, with the Bishops’ Conference of Ireland arguing that:
“Other options are available to the Government that do not involve legislating for abortion. These include the option of appropriate guidelines, which continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn, or a referendum to overturn the X Case judgment. We believe both these options should be fully explored by the Oireachtas [parliament].”
The diverse witnesses to the committee were agreed on three key points.
First, no maternal deaths are known to have occurred in Ireland as a result of any deficiencies in current law.
Although Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in October was widely assumed to have been due to her being refused a termination, this has not been established, and Savita’s husband’s solicitor says, “Mr Halappanavar has never claimed in any interview that a termination could have saved his wife’s life.”
Second, no doctors have ever been prosecuted in Ireland under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act which outlaws the procurement of abortions in Ireland as it does in Britain.
Rhona Mahony of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital is surely sincere in her desire for assurance that she should not risk imprisonment for doing her job, but her fears seem misplaced. Sam Coulter Smith of Dublin’s Rotunda hospital estimates that perhaps up to thirty pregnancies are necessarily terminated each year in Ireland in order to protect mothers’ lives, but none of these life-saving operations, carried out in good faith, would fall foul of the 1861 act; according to Kieran Murphy, president of the Irish Medical Council, there has never been so much as one complaint to the Council after such terminations.
Third, there is no international evidence identifying abortion as a treatment for suicidal ideation among pregnant women.
Britain’s Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries reported in 2011 that suicide in pregnancy was relatively rare and generally linked with mental illness; recent guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ note that abortions do not improve mental health or diminish the likelihood of adverse psychological effects. Fintan O’Toole recently observed in the Irish Times that when the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges commissioned a systematic study of global evidence on this issue, it found that “the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth”.
In other words, abortion does not help suicidal women, and should not be treated as though it does. In her submission to the committee, Breda O’Brien, a patron of Ireland’s Iona Institute and an adviser to Catholic Voices’ Irish sister organisation Catholic Comment, described the tragic effects of one such misguided intervention:
“Ms C had been brutally raped at the age of 13 years. Unlike Ms X, Ms C was psychiatrically assessed and taken to England by the State for a termination. The consequences were disastrous. She has never gotten over the loss of the baby and has made numerous suicide attempts since. Thankfully, none of the attempts has been successful. If we want to trust women, we have to trust the experience of women like Ms C.”
Following Ireland’s largest popular demonstration since the current government took office, it seems there is no shortage of people wondering why their government is so keen to risk the lives of Irish babies when neither the lives of women nor the liberty of doctors are at stake. As the Pro Life Campaign’s Caroline Simons said at Saturday’s vigil, if the government chooses to legislate in defiance of medical practice and psychiatric reality, it “would have violated the most basic right of all – for a reason which is no reason at all.”
Addressing the vigil, along with representatives of various pro-life groups, was football manager Mickey Harte, whose daughter was murdered in Mauritius two years ago, and who has been praised in Northern Ireland for his determination to unite divided communities.
Declaring Ireland almost unique in the Western world for fully protecting two patients – a mother and her unborn child – during a pregnancy, Harte said there was “no issue more important than the protection of human life,” adding “There’s no point in saving the economy if a child’s right to life is compromised or forgotten.”
The vigil was not a religious event, but many there were motivated by their faith, as were many more in local vigils across the land. Several Irish bishops were present, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin having led 2,000 people in prayer beforehand at one of Dublin’s largest churches. Signalling his support for the pro-life cause last month, Archbishop Martin said:
“Each of us is created in the image of God. Catholic teaching clearly affirms that every human life has unique and irreplaceable dignity. Every human life has the right, from its very beginnings, to flourish and develop as God wants it to.”
That Catholics should be motivated by their faith to defend the lives and dignity of their fellow human beings is as it should be. As Monsignor Eamon Martin, soon to be coadjutor archbishop of Armagh, said on Thursday:
“There is a need for a mature relationship between church and society, in both parts of this island, and people of faith have a vital role to play. It would hugely impoverish our faith if we were expected to ‘leave it at home’ or ‘keep it for Sundays’, excluding it from our conversations and actions in daily life. I believe it would equally impoverish society if the fundamental convictions of faith were unable to be heard in public debate; it would diminish our understanding of the human person and dilute the concept of the common good.
Today, more than ever, people of faith are called to present to the world ‘a coherent ethic of life’ – one which knits together a conviction about the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the person, with a commitment to solidarity and the family, to the fair distribution of goods and environmentally sustainable development, to justice and peace.”
25,000 ordinary Irish people of all ages and backgrounds stood together in Dublin on Sunday to uphold such an ethic of life and defy the government’s willingness to introduce direct abortion into Ireland. As Joe Little, religious affairs correspondent for the Irish national broadcaster, rightly observed, “We now have a new phenomenon – we have a ‘people power’ dimension to this campaign which the government has launched.”
It remains to be seen whether the Irish government will listen.