Abortion legislation - It’s time to end the uncertainty

Any lingering doubts harboured by politicians about the level of popular support for legislation on a limited form of abortion in the Republic will hopefully be removed by the spectacle of thousands of people taking to the streets in memory of Savita Halappanavar.

From Dublin to Clonakilty, Galway, Kilkenny, Sligo, Limerick, Carlow, Ennis, London, and New York, they marched and held candlelight vigils, demanding that ‘never again’ should the circumstances surrounding the demise of the 31-year-old Indian woman following a miscarriage at Galway University Hospital be repeated.

With Ireland’s international reputation now in disrepute, the burning question is whether the Government will have the political courage to end the uncertainty caused by the failure of six administrations to enact legislation following the 1992 Supreme Court verdict in the X case. Involving a 14-year-old girl raped by a neighbour, it allowed for medical termination in cases where a mother’s life is in jeopardy.

By consigning decisions to vague guidelines, politicians have effectively created a legislative vacuum which haunted doctors for 20 years and continues to put women in danger today. With lives in the balance, the idea of setting up an appeals body to adjudicate on individual cases is not the answer.

There is no escaping the complex, emotive, and divisive nature of discussions on abortion in Ireland. Yet, society cannot ignore the threat to women who may be denied treatment to terminate a pregnancy if their lives are at risk.

For whatever reason, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is on record as not favouring legislation on abortion. It is time he grasped this nettle and gave the forthright brand of political leadership reflected in his courageous criticism of the Vatican during the child sex abuse controversy. Not surprisingly, Health Minister James Reilly agrees with Mr Kenny that a decision should not to be rushed, but he also endorses the view of Tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore that “doing nothing is not an option”. Dr Reilly’s pledge that the Coalition will not be the seventh government to avoid this issue is reassuring.

An expert report on the issue will be presented to Cabinet next week. While the terms of reference of an internal HSE investigation (with only one independent representative) into Mrs Halappanavar’s death have yet to be finalised, it is good that her family will have an input into shaping the thrust of the probe.

However, the minister’s preference for widespread ‘consultation’ about the recommendations of the expert report is certain to raise fears that the Government is seeking to forge yet another Irish solution for an Irish problem. After 20 years of foot-dragging on the issue, there is now a glaring need for clear direction.

Despite the rhetoric of extremists on both sides of the abortion debate, there should be no question of politicians side-stepping this contentious issue. Their motive should be to protect lives. Thus, when the matter is finally debated in the Oireachtas, TDs and senators should be allowed a free vote, deciding according to their conscience rather than automatically supporting the party-political position.

Ultimately, whatever resolution is reached must not be formulated because it is perceived as least damaging politically. The aim should not be to protect politicians’ electoral prospects, but rather to produce the best and clearest resolution to safeguard the lives of women.

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