However, legal experts say there is no constitutional impediment stopping Mrs Higgins from giving her opinion on political matters.
Following a speech to midwifery students at Trinity College Dublin, Ms Higgins described as an “outrage against women” the possibility of women being made to carry a pregnancy to term when fatal foetal abnormality has been diagnosed.
Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign said it was “wholly inappropriate for her to have intervened in this way in the abortion debate” and that she has a “responsibility to represent the views of more than just the abortion lobby”.
“Before her husband became President, she was a well-known campaigner for a much more permissive abortion law in Ireland,” said Ms Sherlock. “It is important that people are made aware of that fact following her calculated intervention into the debate yesterday.
“How are the heartbroken families of children who had life-limiting conditions and who only lived for a short while supposed to read her intervention? She certainly didn’t acknowledge their anguish and pain and the fact that they have to listen to high-profile people making value judgements about their children and questioning whether their right to life should be given any legal protection at all.”
The new Government has decided that, as part of its programme for government, a Citizen’s Assembly will debate abortion legislation. However, a referendum would be needed if Ireland were to change from its current position. At present, women have to travel to the UK and elsewhere in Europe to access terminations if they do not want to carry a baby with a fatal foetal abnormality to term.
However, senior lecturer in constitutional law at UCC Conor O’Mahony said there is “nothing whatsoever” in the Constitution which stops the President’s wife from airing her opinions.
“Some people may not think it is appropriate but the Constitution has little to say about the President’s spouse,” said Dr O’Mahony, adding that any expectations of the role come from “custom and practice” rather than law.
Pro-life senator Ronan Mullen described the comments as “regrettable”.
“In her comments, she has failed to speak to the experience of all families who received a tragic diagnosis during a pregnancy — and many will have been deeply wounded by her denial of their deceased children’s dignity and rights,” said Mr Mullen. “Many of those who voted for her husband in the 2011 presidential election would have done so on the understanding that there would be no inappropriate interference from the presidential household in political matters.”
Pro-life group the Life Institute said Ms Higgins’ “unprecedented” comments were “an absolute abuse of power and privilege”.
“The President’s wife is unelected but uses the platform of the supposedly non-political office of her husband to amplify her support for abortion,” said Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute.
However, Dr O’Mahony of UCC said that while Irish presidents “try to avoid coming into open conflict with governments and government policy” to say that Presidents’ spouses could not air their opinion was “stretching it a bit far”.