On abortion, both Britain and Ireland need to rediscover the spirit of 67
The Guardian, Thursday 20 December 2012 by Zoe Williams
We pander to the anti-abortion lobby, and are too willing to settle for a few scraps of reproductive rights.
When, this week, you read a headline saying, Ireland to legalise abortion; or see a statement from the Catholic church saying “Irish abortion reform is a ‘licence to kill innocent babies'”, you should treat it with great scepticism. For a start, nobody has suggested changing the law, nobody’s legalising anything, and innocent babies have more to fear, as ever, from the Catholic church, than from any Irish abortion providers.
Nobody has suggested, even out of respect for the recently killed Savita Halappanavar, the slightest modification in the law, so that an abortion might be permitted in a case where the mother would probably die without it, and the foetus would probably die regardless. There are no new ideas, and no concessions to anybody – all that’s been mooted is the codification of a supreme court ruling, so that the abortion provision they do have is no longer just precedent, it’s actually enshrined in law.
Civil liberties and family planning organisations are rejoicing, quietly, nevertheless. To understand why this looks like progress, we need to consider how it looked before.
Ireland has the strictest abortion rules in Europe, most of them framed in, and unchanged since, 1861. The maximum sentence for performing an abortion is a lifetime of penal servitude – they are still using law so antiquated that if they ever wanted to enforce it, they’d have to build a bespoke hard labour camp.
However, in 1992, something did change: in the case of the attorney general versus X, the Irish supreme court decreed that a woman could seek an abortion if her life was at risk, including the risk of suicide (Miss X, incidentally, was 14 when she was raped by a neighbour; no provision exists in Irish law for the termination of pregnancies that result from rape or incest). On the ground, this made very little difference: the possibility of suicide is almost never recorded as the reason for an abortion, and the handful of terminations that do take place in Ireland annually are justified by imminent physical threat to the mother’s life (not, you’ll notice, her health).
So anyway, that’s parliament’s big idea: to turn the X decree into a constitutional reality. Short of doing nothing at all, it’s the limpest thing they could possibly do. And yet it’s the first time in two decades that mainstream Irish politics has had the courage to get anywhere near this issue. To judge from their reactions, both sides, pro- and anti-choice, believe this to be the first step towards legal abortion.
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