Ireland shifts as abortion debate flares

Pro-Life Campaigners gather in Merrion Square, Dublin (19 Jan 2013)
Image caption The thorny issue of abortion is once more back at the top of the political agenda in Ireland

Ireland's anti-abortion campaigners have an important weapon - their voice.

If they could change minds with volume alone they might just stop the Irish government in its tracks.

Filling out Merrion Square in central Dublin on a cold January Saturday are men, women and children on shoulders, carrying photos of babies and pink and yellow banners emblazoned with anti-abortion slogans.

The groups taking part - Youth Defence, Pro Life Ireland and the Catholic organisation, the Iona Institute - testify to the polemical nature of the debate here.

"Keep Your Promise!" they shout - a direct reference to a 2011 election pledge by the main party in Ireland's coalition not to legislate for abortion.

They face a similarly vocal pro-choice movement, reinvigorated by the death of an Indian dentist from Galway.


Savita Halappanavar died last October after suffering a miscarriage. Her husband said that her request for an abortion had been refused by hospital doctors.

Image caption Savita Halappanavar's family said she asked several times for an abortion before she died (Photo courtesy of the Irish Times)

This point has still not been proven and an inquest is underway to determine what actually happened.

Nevertheless, Mrs Halappanavar's death was turned into a campaign by pro-choice campaigners to urge people to back the government's planned legislation.

They used posters of Mrs Halappanavar captioned with the words "never again" to express their opinion.

The government is expected to issue the exact wording of its proposed new law in the coming months.

Patricia Casey, a psychiatrist well known for her anti-abortion views, feels let down.

"This government made a promise to the people, then suddenly they have changed [their minds].

"The announcement was made shortly before Christmas and they seem to be going at quite a pace and I think it is because the Irish government doesn't want to give people time to think about it," says Prof Casey.

But pro-choice campaigners say the proposed legislation does not go far enough.

They argue that more than 4,000 women travel to the UK annually to terminate their pregnancies, because of the restrictions.

The proposed new legislation will only affect a small number - only those mothers whose lives are directly at risk.

Equal rights

Abortion in such circumstances was already, technically, legal.

In 1983, Irish people voted to adopt an anti-abortion amendment into the constitution giving equal rights to life to both the mother and the unborn.

Image caption Pro-choice activists in Ireland want to end the stigma surrounding abortion

But, in 1992, a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim, known only as X, was barred from leaving Ireland to terminate her pregnancy.

The case sparked a major row at home and abroad.

In the end the Supreme Court ruled that X was constitutionally entitled to a termination because she was suicidal and there was a real and substantial threat to her life as a mother. She ended up miscarrying.

Some doctors have felt there was still a great lack of clarity as to when they could carry out an abortion without risk of prosecution.

Pro-choice groups feel a doctor's personal and even religious beliefs may play a part in their decision-making.

Since the X Case, six successive Irish governments have avoided the issue.

Now the government's proposed legislation is widely expected to include cases where the pregnant woman feels suicidal.

Such a change in legislation would not include cases of rape or those of foetal anomalies that pose no threat to the mother's life.

Sensitive debate

The new law would have made no difference to someone like Gaye Edwards.

In February 2001, following a 21-week scan, she was told her unborn had a rare abnormality meaning it would not survive outside the womb.

"The consultant [in Dublin] came back and scanned us in absolute silence.

"Then told us that our child had a condition that was incompatible with life. It's a phrase they use in situations like ours. Incompatible with life. We all know exactly what it means."

Given no option was available to have an abortion in Ireland she travelled to the UK, where her son was medically induced. He died moments later.

She was one of the first women to go public about her termination. It is still relatively uncommon for people to talk freely about it, so she regularly meets with members of a small Dublin-based support group called Termination for Medical Reasons.

On the wider public's reaction to her story she says: "Nobody has come to us and expressed a view that we did the wrong thing".

"I've tried to avoid the paranoia of reading into silence. You know, if someone is silent you think they must object to what we have done."

Gaye argues that in certain cases it is fairer for parents to be allowed to abort in Ireland, where they can be cared for by their family members instead of having to travel far from home.

The government, for its part, is taking things one step at a time, wary of the sensitive nature of the debate.

A parliamentary committee has been hearing expert testimony on the risk of potential suicide to a mother's life and that of the unborn.

Experts included doctors from hospitals where a handful of abortions have already been carried out.

One of the speakers, Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, told the hearing in January that her staff would not hesitate to abort a pregnancy when the mother's life was at risk.

On suicide she adds, "when women are so distressed that they are willing to take their own lives, they need to be listened to, they need to be believed and they need appropriate medical care".

Anti-abortion campaigners deny that potential suicide should be grounds for an abortion.

"I have assessed women - who are sometimes suicidal when they are pregnant," says Patricia Casey.

"There is no evidence that offering an abortion when [women] are suicidal actually works," she adds.

Patricia Casey says the issue is about human rights, not religious faith. But those who are Catholic and attend church find the anti-abortion message hard to ignore.

During mass, priests across the country stress the importance of every human being's right to life from the moment of conception until natural death.

While many Catholics remain devoted to the church's official position, some of those I spoke to after a service at St Theresa's Church in Dublin feel conflicted.

"It is unfair of the Catholic religion to impose their views," said one of the few churchgoers who would talk, stating that she was not in favour of abortion.

"That said, I think the mother has the right to decide," she added.

With Catholicism's importance in Ireland waning - church membership is shrinking and there are fewer priests entering the profession - might Ireland be witnessing a gradual shift in public opinion, catalysed by the Savita Halappanavar case?

A poll in December last year found eight out 10 people would support laws which allow abortion where the mother's life is threatened, including by suicide.

Losing standing

According to Fintan O'Toole, columnist at the Irish Times, the softening of the public stance on abortion seems to reflect, in part, this weakening grip of Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland following the Church's child abuse scandal.

"Not only do we now know that there was widespread abuse by clergy, but more damaging was the way bishops systematically covered up that abuse," he says.

"Over that period the hierarchy lost its moral standing. There are relatively few people left in Ireland who would see themselves as taking their moral bearing from the Catholic hierarchy. And that's a huge change," he says.

Some people feel the legislation is too restrictive.

Gaye hopes that in the future the law may be extended to cases where the unborn is deemed unviable.

"I'd like to think that me talking about my son will make a difference in the long run," she tells me.

"The more volume there is the more it will help. One story isn't going to make a difference but maybe the synergy of all the stories will," she says.

The anti-abortion lobby, though, sees any legislation as having the potential to pave the way to a further easing of legislation and the possibility that abortion may soon be available "on demand".

And that is why the government is taking things one step at a time.

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