With the abortion issue taking a centre-stage in Irish political discussion, Evan O’Quigley argues that it is high time we legislated for the freedom of choice
This week a junior minister at the Department of Health said she believed the government has no choice but to legislate for abortion under circumstances wherein a mother’s life would be threatened. Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch said she expects that an expert group, who will investigate and recommend for the government the best route to go down in terms of abortion legislation, will be required before a decision is made. The issue has already become quite a contentious one, and Lynch has already been criticised by the Pro-Life groups. The two governing parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have traditionally had highly opposing views on the subject, with Fine Gael traditionally siding with Christian-Democrats on the pro-life side, and Labour supporting freedom of choice on the issue. Labour Leader and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, however, said this week that it the issue of abortion would not “cause a rift” within the government.
Abortion is technically legal in Ireland under certain circumstances, after the Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that government must legislate to allow abortion if a woman’s life is at risk. However, no formal legislation has followed the ruling, and as such, there is not sufficient legal framework to allow for doctors to conduct abortions under these circumstances. There is fear that they could find themselves within breach of the law, as the wording of the Supreme Court in the ‘X case’ in 1992 is vague and non specific, which has led to confusion as to what is considered a legitimate ‘threat’ to a mother’s life. Likewise the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2010 made similar comments arguing in favour of a certain degree liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws.
At least fifteen Fine Gael TDs and senators have already stated their opposition to laws which would allow for abortion under any circumstance. While Labour in general is vastly more supportive of legislation to introduce limited access to abortion, this support may not be entirely unanimous. The Irish Examiner reported that at least one member within the Labour parliamentary party have shared Fine Gael members’ concerns. The quoted one member anonymously as having criticised “elements within the Labour Party who have a more aggressive liberal agenda or radical feminist perspective who would like to take this opportunity to legislate beyond the X case”. The Examiner however, did not name the source of this comment, and it is likely a minority fringe opinion, unlikely to cause internal problems within Labour.
The Labour leadership that more adamantly supported a pro-choice view on abortion while in opposition, has been quite on the subject, likely with the intention of avoiding ruptures within the coalition government. Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, has stated the government must wait and “give [the issue] extremely careful consideration”. The government do seem to be going to certain lengths to prevent the abortion issue from becoming a divisive political one. The issue should be looked at as one of equal rights rather than something to be politicised. As Ireland has moved slowly towards legislation in favour of limited abortions, there has already been a surge in pro-life campaigning with posters being erected on buses and on billboards.
The reality is that abortion legislation is required. The Supreme Court ruled twenty years ago that Ireland must provide for women whose pregnancies may cause serious threats to their health. The government must do what previous ones have failed to do, and legislate for this. It may be time, however, for Ireland to legislate not just to allow termination of pregnancies that harm the mother’s health, but to rid of all laws restricting the practice of abortion. This is not because anybody is a fan of abortion: nobody is. Nobody is asking to instate the equivalent of China’s horrendous one child policy. Those on the pro-choice side are simply asking that women be allowed to make their own choice on the issue, while now it is left up to a parliament of (mostly) middle-aged and older men who need not worry about an unwanted pregnancy.
Whatever one’s moral or ethical view is on the subject, it is not right to decide on behalf of other people decisions as serious as terminating a pregnancy. Those on the pro-life side argue they are against legalising what they see as ‘murder’, but to argue against terminating a pregnancy in the case where a mother might die, is itself entirely hypocritical, and the ‘life’ element becomes a bad joke. It should not be the governments, or technical group or experts that decide what women do with their bodies. One might have a personal view against abortion, but to argue to restrict the freedom of others is wrong, and should not be written into our law.
It is important that all parties refrain from making this a wedge-issue, as it will only divide and distract our country from other issues. There should be legislation for abortion made now, preferably without the need for an expensive and time-consuming referendum. The expert group may find that a referendum is needed, and in that case, I would urge people in Ireland to vote in favour of choice, regardless of one’s personal stance on this very contentious issue.