AS A JOURNALIST, when you are listening to someone tell a story you usually try to keep your face fairly impassive. It’s a professional thing. But as I sat in a room in Cork city and listened to a woman tell the harrowing story of the way she had given birth in a UK abortion clinic just weeks earlier it was impossible not to wince at the horror she had endured.
I still can’t quite get over the idea that the Co Cork woman and her partner were back on the street outside that clinic 40 minutes after she gave birth. In her arms was the body of her baby son, wrapped in gauzy material, contained in a cardboard box.
I don’t think you need to have ever given birth yourself to recognise the essential barbarity in what happened to this woman who did not wish her identity to be known, but called herself Isabel.
She was given a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality at Cork University Maternity Hospital. There was kindness there when they delivered the devastating news, but told the couple that if they decided to terminate the pregnancy there was nothing they could do to help them.
After discussing it the couple did decide on a termination but Isabel feels she received particular advice at a crisis pregnancy service in Cork which saw her opting to attend a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic, the UK’s main leading abortion provider.
She spoke in advance to the clinic there and said she received full assurances she would be given the compassionate care which she so badly wanted. In truth her treatment lacked even the most basic level of human decency and was shocking in its lack of compassion.
Her story was given particularly good coverage in this newspaper last Friday. However this was the same day that Brexit happened, and understandably that earth shattering event ended up overshadowing everything else.
This week we were told by the Department of Health that 26 terminations were carried out under the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act last year. Three terminations were carried out based on the risk to the life of the mother by suicide, 14 due to the risk from physical illness and nine based on an emergency situation from physical illness.
This was the same as the number of terminations in 2014. For all of the many flaws in that legislation it has brought us to a place where these facts are now recorded and placed on public record.
But what our politicians are learning in recent months is that abortion is the issue which simply refuses to go away. Momentum is building. I’m quite liking the idea that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have a small abortion sized pain in their brain each day as they are forced to confront the reality of the issue.
Next week the Dáil will vote on independent TD Mick Wallace’s Bill allowing for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald says the Bill gives women false hope since the Attorney General had advised the proposed legislation is unconstitutional because it contravenes the 8th Amendment which recognises the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother.
Even if it is unconstitutional the very fact of it being voted on in the Dáil adds to the net effect of ensuring those who can do something about this are unable to escape the issue. The cause is only added to by the fact that the proposed Bill has also resulted in divisions within Government with Independent Ministers refusing to agree to oppose it. They want a free vote.
The decision to fast-track the Citizen’s Assembly process by a month shows how much the Government is getting it in the neck from activists, opposition politicians, the United Nations and even their own ranks. Further political disruption may arise next week with an invitation which has been sent out by Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, a woman who has been notably outspoken on the issue of abortion since her recent election as a TD for Dublin Bay South.
The deputy has sent out a letter inviting Fine Gael TDs and senators, including ministers and the Taoiseach, to a meeting near Leinster House next Tuesday of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th which involves more than 50 groups and organisations working together on the matter. She’s putting it up to her colleagues and in a way which we have not seen previously.
Actually talking to Kate O’Connell on the issue of abortion you keep expecting to hear her say that something she has just told you is off the record because it seems so outspoken for a Government TD. She says she has a very liberal approach and wonders how practical it is to try and enforce restrictions on who can or cannot have an abortion.
She wonders who will it be that might ask the questions: “Were you raped by your daddy or your neighbour or your brother? Who will fill in the form asking is your child completely incompatible with life, will they breathe for even a minute after birth?”
Asked how colleagues have reacted to her outspokenness the deputy says it is hard to know really, and that no one has challenged her on it so far. She does pick up on the sense of fear over the issue from politicians.
She has never had a conversation with the Taoiseach about abortion, despite her many public comments on it. “It would be an awkward situation chatting to him about reproductive rights,” she said.
Asked why this would be so, Kate is really rather magnificently withering of her boss in her response: “I’m happy to have the conversation, I suppose, but there is a huge generation gap between myself and himself. It would be like a discussion with my Dad... Enda does love a story though, he appreciates things in parable form.”
Ultimately, she says, it is the right of the woman to choose whether or not she wishes to carry a pregnancy to term; to have full bodily autonomy.
“This is a medical issue not a legal issue.” However she is in favour of strict term limits, although in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities obviously a different situation applies.
She feels that the issue of a free vote on the Mick Wallace Bill is a moot point because of its apparent unconstitutionality. “I can appreciate though what Mick Wallace is trying to do in trying to keep the issue live. But for me ultimately it is all about the repeal of the 8th Amendment and that Bill does not tick that box.”
She does urge patience though. She thinks the timetable predicted by Minister Katherine Zappone that, following the Citizen’s Assembly, we could have a referendum to repeal the 8th by the end of 2017, is realistic.
But as you sit and listen to an account like Isabel’s and think of the other women who have to travel abroad for abortions in the meantime it does seem a long time.
You can listen to Isabel tell her own story here.