The Abortion Debate: An Open Letter To Simon Coveney

The Tánaiste Simon Coveney has intervened in the abortion debate, taking a conservative position which opposes the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee. Niall Stokes explains why he should reconsider.

Dear Simon,

we’ve been waiting a long time for this. Now, it seems, the hour has come at last for Ireland to vote again on the issue of abortion. The Government of which you are part has committed to holding a referendum before the summer, in which the electorate will be given the option of removing from the constitution the wording of the 8th Amendment, inserted via referendum in 1983.

On the advice of the Attorney General, Séamus Wolfe, it is likely that the Government will also include a provision on the ballot paper, asking people to say yes or no to affirming the right of the Oireachtas to legislate on the issue. If the referendum is passed, it will then be up to the Dáil to decide the shape of any future legislation on abortion. That is as it should be.

As you know, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has adopted the carefully considered position advocated by both the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee which examined the issue, that abortion should be allowed up to 12 weeks, without restriction as to reason. The leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, surprised a lot of people by also supporting that view.

As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, however, you have since said that – while you support repealing the 8th – the provision to allow abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks goes too far. I am not sure how deeply you have thought about this. When you were interviewed on Today with Sean O’Rourke, you seemed hesitant and unconvinced – and there was a serious lack of clarity about what you are proposing instead, to deal with the issue of rape. The bottom line is that what you offered was a recipe for more hypocricy.

As of now, more TDs have declared for the 12 week provision than against it, but the parliamentary arithmetic is tight. Sinn Féin’s current position is that the party supports repealing the 8th Amendment. It also supports the right to an abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. If I understand it correctly, this is also your position. The word on the ground is that most SF TDs would personally support the 12 week provision, including the outgoing party leader, Gerry Adams. However, Sinn Féin policy will be decided by the membership, and no one knows how that vote will go.

Even if they support the 12-week provision, a lot may yet hang on what you do. In the context I am asking you to reconsider the position you have taken. Because ultimately, I believe it is wrong to put ideology before the good of Irish women. And I suspect that you may know this in your heart too.

ANTI-CHOICE IDEOLOGY

A bit of history might be useful. The nub of the 8th Amendment to the constitution is that it equates the ‘right to life’ of an embryo from the moment of conception with the ‘right to life’ of a fully grown adult woman. Look at the wording, printed above. Read it carefully. That is what it says. And that is what it means. Indeed, you could argue that it actually gives primacy to the embryo, which comes first, its ‘right to life’ being qualified only by “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.”

No sensible human being, you’d think, could see that as being reasonable or sustainable. A fully grown woman has no more “right to life” than an embryo. It is madness.

But the religious zealots – that’s what they were – who prevailed on Irish politicians to introduce the amendment back in 1983 didn’t care about reason. They didn’t care about women or their rights. The only thing that concerned them was the end result: they desperately wanted to make it impossible, ever, for legislators to allow abortion of any kind in Ireland. And how this might hurt or damage or even kill women did not bother them. They didn’t care.

The 8th Amendment has done all of those things. It has killed individual women. It was predictable that it would. But the anti-choice ideology was more important to the architects of the amendment than women’s health. Or even than the lives of women.

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Garret Fitzgerald and Charlie Haughey, went along with it at the time, for no reason other than political expediency. You were too young then to know what was going on. But their weakness will stand to the eternal discredit of both individuals. They allowed themselves to be bullied – and Irish women have been suffering the consequences of their hypocrisy ever since.

EXTRAORDINARY DECISION

As we consider the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee, it is important to remember the different ways in which this twisted piece of deeply reactionary, religiously-motivated thinking has proven to be a disastrous mistake.

As a result of the 8th Amendment, Irish courts were forced to adjudicate on a series of issues to do with the way in which those 43 words – about as smart, you might say now, as a Donald Trump tweet – could be, or were being, interpreted by gardaí, social workers, doctors, barristers and judges.

Opponents of the 8th Amendment were vindicated in the most gut-churning way, in the context of what became known as The X Case. This you will probably recall.

In December 1991, a girl of 14 became pregnant as a result of being raped by a neighbour. Her family planned to take her to England for an abortion. Before they travelled, they asked the Gardaí if DNA from the foetus would be acceptable as evidence against the man identified by the girl as her rapist.

The question was passed up the line to the Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, who took the extraordinary decision to seek an injunction preventing the pregnant girl from travelling, on the basis that abortion was not permissible under the constitution. In February 1992, the injunction was granted in the High Court, and the 14 year old was indeed prevented from travelling, despite telling her parents that she was suicidal.

A month later, that decision was overturned in the Supreme Court, which decided that a woman was entitled to an abortion if there was “a real and substantial risk to her life” – including the threat of suicide. The girl miscarried anyway, ultimately rendering all of the bombastic legal manoeuvring redundant. But the shockwaves from the case were impossible to calm, without some form of remedial action.

In November of that year, three separate new amendments were put to voters.

• The 12th Amendment tried to eliminate the threat of suicide as grounds for an abortion. That was rejected by the people.

• The 13th Amendment stated that the 8th Amendment “shall not limit the freedom to travel between the State and another state.” In other words, it was okay for Ireland to export its abortions to the UK and elsewhere. That amendment was passed.

Separately, SPUC – the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children – had run a campaign against counselling services and student unions, who provided information about where women with crisis pregnancies could go to secure a termination. As part of that campaign, SPUC sought and obtained two injunctions preventing the dissemination of information by Open Door Counselling and the Wellwoman Clinic, as well as by three student unions.

• Arising from that decision, the 14th Amendment specified that the 8th Amendment “shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.” That too was passed.

Irish women were still travelling to the UK in their thousands every year to have abortions. And they have continued to since. Nothing that happened in the Irish constitution or the Irish courts stopped that. Meanwhile, the really vulnerable were crushed by the machinery of State.

BREACH OF HUMAN RIGHTS

Those high profile cases did nothing to prevent another, sinister dynamic developing. It had finally been decided by the courts, in the context of that tragic 1992 case, that an abortion was justifiable if there was an imminent danger to the life of the mother. But at what point would the danger be deemed sufficiently real and immediate to allow an abortion? As a result of the Dáil’s failure to legislate on this, doctors were forced to traverse that impossible terrain on their own.

The brutal truth was that, if they decided an abortion was required, they were potentially placing themselves at risk of criminal prosecution. In October 2012, that uncertainty, allied to a deeply ingrained religious-based bias against abortion among staff in the particular hospital, led directly to the death of 31 year old Savita Halappanavar, in University Hospital Galway.

In considering abortion rights, we would do well to remember exactly what happened to Savita. She was just 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to hospital, feeling gravely sick. When sepsis was diagnosed, she and her husband both requested that an abortion be carried out immediately. That request was refused by the hospital, with one midwife admitting that she was turned down because “Ireland is a Catholic country.” Just days later, Savita died as a result of the complications of a septic miscarriage.

To describe it as a disgraceful case of medical negligence is to understate it. You only have to look at the wording of the 8th Amendment to understand that in the minds of the medical team in Galway, the possibility that the baby might just have a tiny chance of surviving outweighed the imminent danger to Savita’s life. It is not unfair to say that Savita Halappanavar died – or was killed – as a result of 8th Amendment-induced medical dereliction.

And then there was the ‘Y’ case, which saw a young asylum seeker, who was pregnant as a result of rape, being denied the right to an abortion. She had travelled from Dublin to the UK by boat, for a termination, but was arrested for attempting to illegally enter, and sent back to Ireland. Told she could not have an abortion here, she went on hunger strike and was then effectively incarcerated by the State. In what remains a profoundly shocking abuse of her human rights, which happened while you were in government, the High Court granted permission to the HSE to forcibly hydrate her. She was ultimately coerced into giving birth to the child, which was delivered by caesarean section after 25 weeks, entirely against her will.

From a human rights perspective, it has to rank as one of the most shameful and degrading, misogynistic episodes in the history of the State.

DISHONESTY AND MISINFORMATION

That is the sickening legacy bequeathed to us by the 8th Amendment, and the religious beliefs that underpinned it. As you will be aware, all the evidence suggests that the majority of Irish people accept now that it must be repealed. But we are entitled to expect that you will campaign hard and vociferously for this outcome. In particular, it will be vital as this debate progresses to ensure that dishonesty and misinformation are not allowed to win out. I sincerely hope that you will play your part here too.

The attempt by anti-choice campaigners to exploit people with Down Syndrome is a case in point. They don’t care about the facts. Nor do they care about the effect that this might have on anyone, including those born with Trisomy 21. As with the architects of the original amendment, it doesn’t matter to them who they hurt as long as you succeed in creating uncertainty and anxiety.

I am sure you know the truth: as the former Master of the National Maternity Hospital Peter Boylan has pointed out, diagnostic tests for Down Syndrome take place after twelve weeks. The anti-abortion crowd may have no compunction about using people with Down Syndrome as a political football. They are concerned only about winning – at all costs. But better is expected of you. Which is why I am asking you to personally acknowledge that Down Syndrome is irrelevant to the legislation which the Oireachtas Committee and the Taoiseach have proposed.

FREE, SAFE, LEGAL

As you also know, the reality remains that thousands of Irish women travel to the UK and elsewhere for abortions every year. Over a thousand more use abortion pills at home without medical supervision. As Leo Varadkar said, we have abortion in Ireland, but it is unsafe, unregulated and illegal.

Meanwhile, women have conceived and will continue to conceive as a result of rape. No matter how adroitly anyone dances around on the head of a pin, it is legally impossible to establish definitively whether or not someone has been a victim of rape within 12 weeks. So, short of the 12-week provision, how can you possibly legislate effectively to allow abortion in cases of rape? You were not able to answer this on Today with Sean O’Rourke. Indeed the suggestions you made on that programme seem to me to be unworkable and impractical.

The real answer, however, is not complicated.

I said it here in Hot Press months ago, and the words have since been taken up more widely, including by Leo Varadkar. We must trust Irish women to make their own decisions, in good faith, in relation to abortion.

Do you, and others opposed to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee, really believe that Irish women are incapable of being trusted? That they will go out and have unprotected sex just for the hell of it because if they do conceive, sure they can have an abortion anyway? That they will run amok, demanding abortions, as the sneaky phrase ‘abortion on demand’ implies? How desperately insulting that is to Irish women.

There is something else which is important. Unlike the religious institutions which fuel the anti-choice ideology, people who are pro-choice have a track record of being pro-children. Clearly, no one who is opposed to abortion will ever be required to have one. But those who do make the decision, often in harrowing circumstances, should not have to travel abroad to do so or be put through the wringer here at home either.

We will never eliminate the need for abortion services in Ireland. That is self-evident. But anyone with a bit of sense – and I’d always have included you in that number – knows that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide proper sex education and to ensure the widespread availability of contraception. In developed countries, as a result of sex education and improved contraception, the rate of abortions has dropped by 30% over the past 20 years. The rate of abortions in countries where it is illegal also tends to be higher than in countries where it is legal.

So it comes down to this: anyone who really wants to reduce the incidence of abortion among Irish women, will allow free, safe, legal abortion here, up to 12 weeks, and then set about making sure that proper sex education and the availability of contraception do the rest. Over to you, Minister...

 

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