LAST FRIDAY, over 100 civil society organisations, trade unions, politicians, activists, artists, and academics signed a statement calling on the government to enact legislation for the X case before the summer. The statement demanded that this legislation include the risk of suicide as grounds for abortion as well as provision for termination if a foetus has a fatal abnormality and cannot survive.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that a significant majority of people support abortion when a woman’s life is at risk. Yet, twenty-one years on from the X case, and several months after the death of Savita Halappanavar, legislation to protect women’s lives is still not in place. Every day this is delayed is a day women’s lives are at risk.
Abortion in cases of suicide
In December 2012, the government committed to introducing a combination of legislation and regulations to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland. At present, however, there is a real danger that this promised legislation could be stalled further and made so restrictive as to render abortion in cases of suicide risk inaccessible.
A memo about the proposed legislation was set to go to Cabinet at the beginning of February only to be withdrawn last minute and replaced by a “verbal update” from Minister Reilly. Media reports stated that the delay was due to a proposal by the Minister which would require up to five doctors to approve abortion where there is a risk of suicide. Such a proposition is entirely unworkable and will fail to deal adequately with what the European Court of Human Rights called the “striking discordance” between the theoretical right to a lawful abortion in Ireland and the reality of its practical implementation. The assertion in the Action on X statement that no more than two medical practitioners should be required to approve abortion is a direct response to this impractical proposal.
In addition to this setback, there are indications that the legislation may be further delayed. Minister Reilly has been quoted on several occasions as saying that he expects to bring forward the Heads of a Bill before Easter on 31 March. However, in response to a parliamentary question on 21 February, he stated that the government intends to publish the Heads of a Bill “in the next few months”. It is therefore critically important that the 85 per cent of us who support this legislation make our voices heard by contacting our TDs.
State-wide access to abortion
The Action on X statement also calls for State-wide access to abortion – a woman whose life is at risk because of her pregnancy should not be denied a termination because she lives in a rural area. As well as this, provision should be made for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Every week, women and their partners travel to the UK to terminate much-wanted pregnancies because the foetus has no chance of survival. Liverpool Hospital alone sees two couples a week. Every week we force women to endure unnecessary psychological, physical and financial hardship. Yet, as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has highlighted, the Irish government itself has argued in the European Court of Human Rights that it is possible to interpret Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution as permitting termination of pregnancy in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
We have already waited too long. We have watched the unnecessary and tragic deaths of women like Sheila Hodgers, Michelle Harte, and Savita Halappanavar. This must never happen again. Legislation for X must be introduced by summer with no restrictions that make abortion unavailable in practice. The government must acknowledge that women’s lives matter.
Alison Spillane is a member of Action on X and the Abortion Rights Campaign. Action on X will hold a Rally for X starting from the Central Bank on Dame Street at 6pm this evening. For more information on the 10 Days of Action see www.abortionrights.ie