[Today's guest post is by Irish SPL member Evelyn Fennelly.]
For the first time in its history, Ireland passed a bill legalising abortion in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill contains provisions for termination of pregnancy where there is a physical threat to life of the mother and legalises abortion where the mother experiences suicidality.
To be clear: pro-life groups do not oppose the provision of medical treatment to pregnant women. Sometimes treatment will consist of medication, other times major interventions of surgery or combinations of medication and surgery. Sometimes the pregnancy will have to be ended (i.e. the baby delivered) but everything will be done to also preserve the life of the baby. The intention of these interventions is to save lives, not end them. Sometimes a baby will not survive, but that is not the intention of the procedure. For example: in the case of a mother with pre-eclampsia that is unresponsive to interventions, the pregnancy needs to end immediately. The baby will be delivered. Doctors will care for the mother and a team of neo-natologists will care for the baby, endeavouring to preserve his or her life as well. That baby will hopefully survive, but some babies delivered early because such a termination of pregnancy was required do not survive and may die in the NICU hours or days later. The death of the child was not the intention of the procedure. It is very different from an abortion, where the purpose is to end the life of the child.
Pro-life groups in Ireland support the provision of medical treatment to pregnant women and support the ethical distinction between interventions intended to save lives and abortion, which intends to end a life. As such, we do not have an issue with clarifying the law surrounding the provisional of ethical treatment. [Ironically, this Bill may in fact result in reduced clinical flexibility in such cases, as it states specific circumstances when terminations may be carried out. Before now, provision of treatment, including termination, was permitted when the doctor's intention was to preserve life in accordance with the Medical Council's guidelines, which allowed for clinical flexibility in treating cases as they arose, not according to prescribed legal definitions.]
The big issue that pro-life groups have with the Bill is Section 9, which permits termination of pregnancy in women experiencing suicidality. This clause is based on the Supreme Court's decision in The X Case in 1992, when they concluded (without hearing any psychiatric evidence) that abortion was a permissible treatment for a woman suicidal during pregnancy. As this Bill was being formulated, the government held two sessions of medical and legal hearings. At those hearings, all the psychiatrists present -- including those who were pro-choice -- confirmed that abortion is not a treatment for suicidality. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that shows abortion can have a harmful effect on a woman's mental health, especially if she has a history of mental illness. The evidence of these psychiatrists seems to have been completely ignored, as the clause allowing termination of pregnancy because of suicidality remains in the final Bill.
The supposed restricted access legalised in this Bill is similar to the law in California in 1968 which also legalised abortion in cases of suicidality. In three years, the number of abortions in California rose from under 700 to over 61,000. Systems in the UK, New Zealand and other countries show mental health exceptions being widely abused and gradually leading to de facto abortion on demand. There is a real fear that this Bill presents the beginning of a similar trajectory for Ireland.
Aside entirely from the prospect of wide-spread abortion, the Bill as it stands presents a disturbing reality. For the first time in the history of our state, the life of an unborn child can be deliberately and intentionally targeted -- without any term limit. Abortion is now legal when a woman experiences suicidality in pregnancy, even though there is no medical evidence to show that it will help her, and a significant amount of evidence that it could further harm her mental health. Government members and media commentators who talk about possible repeal of Section 9 (the "suicide clause") if it becomes abused miss the point entirely: destroying the life of one child under this section is a grievous wrong and is in itself an abuse.
Interestingly, the Abortion Rights Campaign opposed the Bill because it did not "go far enough." The ARC ultimately supports unrestricted abortion in the "Canadian model," and wanted this Bill to include legalising abortion for unborn babies diagnosed with fatal conditions, and for unborn babies conceived in rape. The ARC also opposed the provision in the Bill which creates a 14 year prison sentence for those who procure abortions. This provision was not proposed by any pro-life group. I also do not believe that women should be imprisoned -- but I do believe that those who perform abortions should be subjected to legal prosecution and struck off the medical register.
The current government consists of a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour. The main government party, Fine Gael, courted the pro-life vote in the last election, giving a commitment not to introduce abortion to the Pro Life Campaign and asking them to circulate this commitment to their membership in advance of the General Election in 2011. Some government members tried to deny that a commitment was ever given (unfortunately for them, the Irish Independent published it -- see the second half of this article). Others engaged in some spectacular semantic gymnastics, claiming that the Bill did not renege on the commitment.
The Bill was voted on in the Dáil (parliament) after lengthy debate. The "whip system" requires government representatives to vote as mandated -- in this case, to vote in favour of the Bill. 31 members of parliament voted against the Bill. Five of these were government members who were subsequently expelled from Fine Gael (ironically, for honouring the party's pre-election commitment). We applaud the courage and conviction of: Terence Flanagan, Billy Timmins, Brian Walsh, Peter Mathews and Lucinda Creighton. Other representatives struggled against their conscience -- and won. Notably, Regina Doherty, James Bannon, John O'Mahony, Michelle Mulherin and Simon Harris, who had previously given personal pro-life commitments on top of the party's commitment, went on to support the Bill this week, sacrificing principle rather than being expelled from the party.
The Bill will go to the Senate next week, where more Senators will oppose the bill -- and more members will be expelled from Fine Gael. The government Chief Whip in the Senate, Paul Coghlan, has been a long-time pro-life advocate, which presents the extraordinary possibility of the Chief Whip defying the very whip he is tasked with enforcing. After the Bill passes through the Senate, there will be "rebel" groups in both houses -- still representatives, but no longer members of government. It is unclear at this stage whether a new political party will emerge from the pro-life "rebels."
Senators can recommend amendments to the Bill, which will then go back to the Dáil, where representatives will accept or reject proposed amendments from the Senate. The Bill will then be sent to the President for his signature. The President has the power to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court in order to determine its constitutionality before signing it. The President, Michael Higgins, has been a long time abortion advocate and supports this Bill. However, if referred to the Supreme Court and determined constitutional by the court, the Bill is rendered immune from legal challenge. I think it unlikely that Higgins will take the risk of sending the Bill to the Supreme Court - it is more likely that he will sign the Bill, making it law late next week.
What then? That's not clear just yet. Irish pro-life activists will spend some time licking their wounds and reflecting. The past few months have been a long and stressful battle for those involved in campaigns. Whether the strategy that's ultimately decided upon will be a legal challenge, a repeal through parliament or a constitutional amendment (or something else entirely) is anyone's guess at this stage. What I do know is that the past months have mobilised and galvanised a growing pro-life movement that's motivated to ensure unborn babies and their mothers are protected by Irish law. This picture says it all.