GUEST COLUMNIST: We have only ourselves to blame for Savita’s death

IT’S just an ordinary day in Ireland when 12 women leave to have abortions in England.

Looking at a country writhing in outrage about an issue it never gave a damn about strains credulity.

Look up the Ryanair and Aer Lingus websites and ask yourself which of those flights one of those women might be on today? Could it be the 10am Aer Lingus flight this morning from Dublin to Heathrow? Is she on the Ryanair flight at 11.35am from Knock to Luton?

There are very few of us who have not been on one of those aeroplanes carrying women to have abortions abroad. There are fewer who cared.

One of the most nauseating aspects of the hypocrisy that passed for debate this week was the vitriolic visiting of blame. None of us know yet exactly the circumstances of the tragic death of a beautiful young woman, Savita Halappanavar.

We do not know with certainty the details of her condition, the complexities involved, or about the role and judgement of those charged with her care. Clearly there are serious questions to be asked and, on the basis of the information in the public domain, there is reason to be deeply disturbed.

But if blame is the game we can blow the final whistle now. We know who is to blame and who the guilty party is. The Irish people set out with forethought and malice to pass the eighth amendment to the constitution in 1983. We the people intruded a ham-fisted article into the constitution designed to pre-empt politicians legislating for abortion in any circumstances.Ignited by the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the McGee case, which recognised the right to marital privacy and, by extension, the right to contraception, the pro-life movement began. It was determined to ensure that rights to marital privacy which permitted contraception would never extend to include abortion.

That pro-life movement in the late 1970s and early ’80s was a grassroots, lay-led, non-party group determined to reassert the loosening social controls that had long regulated society.

They brilliantly exploited political instability over the period in 1981-1982, when there were three general elections in 18 months. The fatally flawed eighth amendment which guaranteed the ‘equal’ right to life of the unborn was passed in 1983 by a two-thirds majority of the Irish people.

That campaign surpassed all others in its ugliness. It mustered a large majority of people to, as they thought, vote to prevent the legislature ever providing for abortion. If some politicians were supine or simply cynical in their acquiescence, most, being truly representative of the people who elected them, were supportive. Within 10 years, the Ms X case was a consequence.

The horrible truth is not that politicians have failed Savita Halappanavar any more than they failed Ms X or Anne Lovett in Granard.

The real truth is far uglier. We the people sought to systematically control the sexuality and the fertility of women through the ballot box as completely as the clergy ever did through the confessional. Ironically, the electoral register is the only political forum with gender equality.

If morals loosened over time, the fundamental Irish law of double standards remained intact. The consequence of the Ms X case was never about a suicidal young girl. It was all about us realising that in passing the eighth amendment we unintentionally deprived ourselves of the carpet beneath which we used to sweep what we saw as our own dirt.

Of course, we quickly passed further amendments to ensure the rights to travel for abortion and to access information about one. We were not going to allow abortion in Ireland, and we were not going to allow the consequences of not having abortion in Ireland. We cynically exported our problem. We all knew. We were all in on it. Those women are on those flights today.

In dealing with the Ms X case the Supreme Court decided in the case of a suicidal young girl the ‘equal’ right of mother and unborn meant she was entitled to an abortion.

The hue and cry that the cowardice of the legislature to pass laws to give effect to the Ms X case allowing abortion in very limited circumstances is responsible for Savita Halappanavar’s death is a devious half-truth. It ignores with stunning dishonesty the fact that there has never been a mandate to legislate for abortion. There possibly still isn’t one now.

If our moral culpability is clear, the legal mess of our own making is anything but. Would legislating for the Ms X case have helped Savita Halappanavar? That judgement required ‘a real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother before a termination is lawful. It is not clear if such a risk was plain in time to save Ms Halappanavar. That will be a central point of any inquiry.

It is certain, however, that legislation under the Ms X case will not be enough to protect the health of women in uncertain medical circumstances. What is clearly required is the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution.

Our national discomfort is aggravated because Savita Halappanavar was an immigrant, a professional, and now a cause for international attention. The cultural colonialism and condescension that characterised our attitudes to people of other races from the developing world has been witheringly turned back on us. When we had nothing else we projected our benignity onto ‘black babies’. In her tragic and painful death, Savita found us out. We could forget our own problems by exporting them. Mortifyingly she has reminded us.

It’s Saturday and TDs around the country are in their clinics in fear of angry people demanding abortion, demanding that abortion be stopped, demanding that promises be kept and promising retribution if promises are broken.

Savita Halappanavar’s death is an explosion in the body politic. It has unleashed that most incoherent of emotions, public outrage. Shaping policy out of rage will stretch the capacity of this Government to its limits.

We will point at anyone before we will look at ourselves.

* Gerard Howlin is a public affairs consultant, and was a government adviser from 1997 to 2007.

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