SHAUN CONNOLLY: Referendum only way to settle divisive abortion issue

THE fact Savita Halappanavar’s life may not have been saved by the X case legislation now going through the Dáil is testament to its stark limitations.

For all the abuse TDs are getting from the more extreme wing of the anti-abortion lobby, this law will change very little.

A 14-year-old rape victim would still be forced to go through with a resultant pregnancy, and a woman who knows the foetus she is carrying cannot go full-term will also have no choice but to continue with the grim experience.

Except they do have the most lonely of choices — going to England along with thousands of other women so that pious little Ireland can wash its hands of them.

Now that this minimal compliance with a two-decade-old Supreme Court ruling looks set to finally make the statute book, it is the well overdue moment for Ireland to face reality on a woman’s right to seek a termination in certain circumstances.

No one relishes the thought of going through another abortion referendum, but it is now inevitable. Such a move would be a great relief for an Oireachtas that so often drags behind public opinion, rather than leads it.

Individual voters will not be intimated by the letters written in blood, Taoiseach Enda Kenny says he has received, and it would be what the anti-abortion lobby insist they want — a national conscience vote. And it is clear Ireland is a very different place from how it was in the divisive polls of 30, or even, 10 years ago.

Some 75% of people back the X case legislation, according to an IpsosMRBI/Irish Times poll, which also showed 83% support for women being able to seek a termination in cases where the foetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb, and 81% approving abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.

A smaller majority, 52%, also backed suicidal intent as grounds for a termination on its own outside of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

And it was only when people were asked if they would support a termination if it was in the “best interest” of the woman did the anti-abortion segment gain a minority edge of 46%-39%.

But then if the question had been posed as a “least worst” option for the woman in a crisis pregnancy, the numbers would probably have been different as people reflect on circumstances and experiences in their own family and social circles.

The image of Irish women seeking a termination in their home state as scheming, duplicitous liars, using suicidal intent as a way to con highly-trained medical professionals is still being peddled by those opposed to the X case legislation — and is still as offensive as it ever was.

Mr Kenny has stood firm in the face of such pressure and deserves credit for doing so. It is a telling irony that he is such a devout Catholic, yet is at his most impressive when defining his premiership against the Catholic Church.

This column noted some weeks ago, that while his actions in a range of policy areas are certainly open to question, his leadership on the X case legislation has been strong.

In a highly effective and accomplished Dáil intervention, he set out that whatever his personal religious beliefs, he was not elected to act on those, but rather to govern in the best interest of all.

While the Catholic Church’s views deserve respect — the same level as the views of all other churches, and the same level of respect given to people of no religion-based faith system — the Catholic hierarchy needs to rapidly come to terms with the fact it is no longer calling the shots in a country it was so used to dominating for so long.

The political class that once willingly prostrated itself before Catholic bishops can now stand up and govern according to the views of the people, not the pontiff.

Mr Kenny drew a line in history when he told TDs: “I am now being branded by personnel around the country as being a murderer. I’m going to have on my soul the death of 20 million babies. I’m getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the system and it’s not confined to me. Therefore I am proud to stand here as a public representative, who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I am a Taoiseach for all the people and that’s my job.”

The HSE inquiry into Ms Halappanavar’s death was handled badly at the outset by Health Minister James Reilly when he downgraded it to a clinical review — thus increasing the alienation felt by grieving widower Praveen Halappanavar — but the investigation was saved by its guiding force, Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran.

Mr Halappanavar has shown the HSE up for the incompetent, inhumane organisation it is from the beginning of this probably avoidable tragedy. He pointed out that the medical records given to his lawyers logging his wife’s final days in hospital meticulously listed every piece of toast she asked for, but, strangely, did not mention her repeated pleas for the termination she believed could have saved her life.

Then the HSE used the ugliest language to insist Ms Halappanavar’s records were its “property” and only they had “ownership” of them. It was a clear message: the HSE believed it had “ownership” of Ms Halappanavar and that her final, dying, days were its “property”.

Some of that HSE arrogance remains in lack of apportioning responsibility over how Ms Halappanavar died in the report, and its chilling title: “The Investigation into Incident 50278”.

But Prof Arulkumaran made clear his own independence when he pointed out that the present legislation could still lead to a similar death as it left decisions regarding terminations unresolved until the mother was at “death’s door”.

It is now time for a referendum to resolve the outstanding issues.

Then, we can have a real national, hopefully rational, debate on what choices women, in this overwhelmingly male-governed country, have the right to exercise over their own bodies.

A referendum will also ensure that Ms Halappanavar’s death will not be remembered as “Incident 50278”, but rather the moment Ireland’s establishment finally had to face-up to decades of rampant hypocrisy and misogamy.

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