Since a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, known as the X case, abortion has been theoretically legal in Ireland if there is a risk to the life of a pregnant woman. Bunreacht na hÉireann now allows Dáil Éireann to legislate on this; however, no political party has dared to, and the Irish Medical Council cravenly considers it malpractice for any doctor to perform an abortion: “The deliberate and intentional destruction of the unborn child is professional misconduct. Should a child in utero lose its life as a side-effect of standard medical treatment of the mother, then this is not unethical”. Remarkably, this edict extends to where the pregnancy does not involve the agency of the woman, such as cases of rape and incest.
Meanwhile, the numbers of Irish women seeking abortions in Britain seem to be 150-200 weekly, though figures are unreliable. In May 2007, a pregnant 17-year-old girl, known only as “Miss D”, whose foetus suffered from anencephaly, was prevented from travelling to Britain by the Health Service Executive. The High Court eventually ruled that she could not be prevented from travelling merely because she was a ward of the state, but clearly women’s rights are under practical threat.
In 2005, three Irish women who had previously travelled to England for abortions won their case in the European Court of Human Rights, that restrictive and unclear Irish laws violate several provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case, A, B and C v Ireland, held there is no right for women to an abortion, although Ireland had violated the Convention by failing to provide an accessible and effective procedure for a woman to establish whether she qualifies for a legal abortion under current Irish law. A recent Private Members’ Bill, put forward by Socialist Party TD Clare Daly, People Before Profit TD Joan Collins and Independent TD Mick Wallace, sought to create a legal framework for abortion in Ireland where a woman’s life is at risk, including from suicide. The vote was opposed by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. It was backed by Sinn Féin and number of independents, though many of them made it clear they were determined to provide only for abortion in the case of threats to the life of the woman. A recent and moving Irish Times article also notably dealt only with women whose lives had been threatened by pregnancy and who had therefore had abortions. There does not seem to be much of a constituency for abortion in other circumstances.
In any event, Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, rejected the Bill on the grounds that the House should await the report of an expert group on the matter, which will report within months.
Abortion is complicated and involves a weighing of the rights of a woman with those of an unborn foetus. We do not even have a language for rights outside human rights and many, particularly in Anglophone countries outside Ireland, believe that the position of a foetus must yield to that of the woman, where her life, her health, her emotional welfare including in circumstances of rape or incest or even just her life plans (at least in the first trimester) demand it. As part of our acceptance that life is complex and circumstances often far from ideal, Village considers that the logic of sympathising with a woman who believes there is an imperative to have a first-trimester abortion extends to a legislative and constitutional imperative to provide for first-trimester abortion where a woman demands it. Ireland should legislate for X and move to provide in the medium-term, through constitutional change, for first-trimester abortions. No country that exports its moral issues in circumstances of great human pain can call itself a Republic.