An Iranian solution to an Irish problem?

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

Mary Harney once said that spiritually speaking, Ireland was closer to Boston than Berlin.

Her successor, James Reilly, in producing the long overdue Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, may have started to push us closer to Tehran, but all not that close.

Because here's the twist - Iran's abortion laws are more liberal than ours, and will still be even after we're all debated-out and the new 'X Case legislation' is passed.

In Iran, abortion is legal where the mother's life is deemed to be in danger and where the fetus has specific legally-recognised serious abnormalities that would make it unviable after birth or cause difficulties for the mother to care for the child after birth.

As it stands today, before the passing into law of the new legislation, our abortion regime is considerably less liberal than Iran's, whose rulers are not noted for excessive religious, social or political tolerance.

Until the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act later this year, in Ireland, allowable abortion where the mother's life is in danger will not have been formally written into law.

Abortion in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities, unlike in Iran, however, will continue to be illegal here, even after the passing of our minimalist legislation that has generated huge controversy.

For all that, the new Irish legislation will be welcomed by most rational people, as it attempts to clarify a confused legal situation for both doctors and patients - a potentially career-challenging situation for doctors, and a potentially life-threatening one for patients.

It is hard to credit that it took 20 years post the X Case judgement to take what is really a very tiny step towards a humane legal scenario for admittedly rare cases.

The Government is legislating for what in reality will be a very uncommon event - where the life of the pregnant woman is under substantial threat from either physical illness or potential suicide.

The checks and balances imposed under the assessment and review processes for termination are quite stringent.

Indeed it is very difficult to ascertain, judging by the strict nature of the new law, how it could  'open the floodgates' to a more liberal abortion regime, as claimed by some - or indeed lay any foundations whatsoever for 'abortion on demand' at some time in the foreseeable future.

For example, there would be some doubt over whether a suicidal pregnant woman who has her request for an abortion turned down by the proposed 'troika' of specialists will have the desire to submit herself to a further review process.

It is perhaps more likely that in such cases, the woman will follow the time-honoured tradition of journeying to the UK for an abortion, so there will probably be no real change there.

Proposals to 'park' suicidal ideation from the provisions of  the new legislation were unrealistic and largely self-serving. Surely the Government could not, practically, logistically, or morally, have tried to legislate for the X Case while ignoring a big part of what this ruling was all about.

As for the future, any further liberalisation of the abortion laws here would require a referendum, and no Government in the short to medium term at least will want to go down that road, given the furore resulting from the Government simply trying to legally clarify a 20-year-old Supreme Court ruling.

Indeed, even the growing number of people who would appear to favour a moderate liberalisation of the abortion laws beyond the the X Case criteria would shudder at the thought of a re-run of the 1983 pro-life referendum hysteria.

Some would feel, however, that this may be a price worth paying for better access to what are regarded as basic women's reproductive rights in most other democracies.

The new law is unlikely to reduce even infinitesimally the number of women who travel to the UK each year (around 4,000) for an abortion.

And therein lies the crux of the old 'Irish solution to an Irish problem.'

We are unlikely for the foreseeable future to get have a more liberal abortion regime in Ireland.

And while we must respect the fact that a sizeable number of people still do not want anything that would come near even limited 'abortion on demand', we must finally deal with the underlying issues behind the chronic exporting of our abortion problem to clinics in the UK.

And surely most right-thinking people would also feel it to be simply outrageous that even after the 'X Case law' is passed, women carrying babies with lethal fetal abnormalities have the horrifying option of carrying the pregnancy to full term at home, or journeying to the UK to have a termination.

Then there is the prohibition of abortion in cases of rape or incest - another issue one can be sure will be firmly packed in deep-freeze by legislators after the new abortion bill is passed.

So essentially, what many would feel we are getting with the new abortion legislation is probably too little, and definitely far too late.

Not surprising really, as that has been the mantra of health and social policy in our strange little country for decades.

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