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Opinion: Tragic case of clinically dead pregnant woman highlights our unworkable approach to abortion

Following the burial today of a young woman, who was kept on life support while clinically dead due to legal considerations about her pregnancy, we must consider the legacy of the Eighth Amendment.

Donal O'Keeffe

TWO YEARS AFTER the death of Savita Halappanavar and only months since the Ms Y case, Ireland has just had its latest “right to life” horror story. A young woman died but was kept artificially, horrifyingly, “alive” for weeks on the vanishingly-small chance her pregnancy might survive to viability. Thanks to the Eighth Amendment, Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution states that mother and unborn have equal rights to life and the State will vindicate those rights where practicable.

Against the express wishes of her anguished family, this poor woman’s right to die was delayed because our Constitution is, frankly, an unholy mess. Thankfully, on St Stephen’s Day, the High Court found that her life support could be switched off and her family could now grieve. To our shame, their grief has been compounded by the unimaginable suffering to which they were subjected.

Few who followed this tragedy will forget the raw heartbreak of the woman’s father as he told the Court that her two small children had been told the nurses “are looking after Mummy until the angels come”. Or the unnamed obstetrician who became upset as he described in terrible detail his patient’s deterioration and said she “is a little girl in painted nails and… make-up… but… I know she is dead”.

I’m old enough to remember how we got here.

A strange time in Ireland

I’m in my mid-forties and the early 1980s were the backdrop of my early teens. I have odd, snapshot recollections of the time. I remember those frantic men and women with their rosary beads and their placards of aborted foetuses and the mania that seemed to grip the country. It was a very strange time in Ireland.

I remember Garret and Charlie like Saint George and the Dragon, seemingly locked in eternal conflict for the Taoiseach’s job, and I remember 1983, the year after GUBU, when they tried to out-Catholic each other as both agreed to support the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign’s amendment to outlaw abortion. In later life, Fitzgerald at least had the decency to regret his actions.

At the turn of the new year, in Granard, 15-year-old Ann Lovett died after giving birth in a field, beside a statue of the Blessed Virgin. The sadness of her death shocked the nation.

This was the time, too, of the Kerry Babies case. A baby was found, stabbed to death, on White Strand in Cahirciveen. The Gardaí and DPP decided a distressed young woman whose own baby had died, 40 miles away, must be the murderer. Following lengthy Garda interrogations, she and her family gave elaborately-detailed, perfectly-matching confessions to events which it later turned out couldn’t possibly have happened.

Twelve months later, the same Virgin Mary who watched Ann Lovett die was venerated all over the country as thousands turned out to see her statues, illuminated by florescent bulbs and haunted by moths, apparently move in the dark.

A defence against the liberal onslaught

Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion, the only such in the democratic world, is our abiding legacy of that bizarre and feverish time and here’s Ireland’s dirty little secret: the truth is there was no danger at all in 1983 that Ireland would legalise abortion. The Eighth Amendment, for all the pain and the confusion and the alphabet soup of A, B, C, D, (and now P) X and Y grief it has caused over the past three decades, was never really about abortion.

Article 40.3.3 only exists because 31 years ago Catholic fundamentalists saw this as their line in the sand. With the spectres of contraception, divorce and homosexuality looming, they saw an open goal. This was their show of strength, their bulwark against the liberal onslaught.

It said abortion on the tin but it was about control. That’s the key to the creepy, sex-obsessed dogma behind this Constitutional aberration: control, not over souls – because the next world is never enough – but control over women’s bodies. After all, if your body isn’t even your own, your soul is hardly likely to go getting any flighty notions.

The crawthumpers lost their war and all-but-one of their battles too. Contraception is now as easy to buy and as unremarkable as chewing gum. Divorce is a daily reality. In the next few months we will have a Constitutional referendum not about the illegality of homosexuality – as it was in 1983 and remained for another decade – but rather about whether or not love is love and whether or not gay people can marry, just as happily (or as unhappily) and more importantly just as mundanely, as everyone else.

Hard cases and bad law

The Eighth Amendment remains a minefield from a long-lost war, blighting lives unborn when it was planted. We need political leadership (although God help any politician trying to sell that at the Church gate collection) and we as an electorate need to grow up too. It’s past-time we became a proper secular democracy and dispensed with the rank hypocrisy of outsourcing 11 terminations a day to Perfidious Albion.

Last week, the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, asked the consultant obstetrician Dr Peter Boylan whether medical guidelines would be helpful in dealing with cases such as this latest tragedy. Dr Boylan said they would, before adding “repeal of the Eighth Amendment would be even more helpful”.

Hard cases make bad law, goes the old legal maxim. Look at all the hard cases this bad law has made.

Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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