Belfast court’s human rights ruling restarts bitter abortion rows
By Bernard Purcell
Ireland’s politicians seem once again poised to use the country’s controversial abortion laws against each other to score political advantage…without fixing the flaws that have cost some women in Ireland their lives.
The issue, which has been hugely divisive in the past, is already causing some internal party divisions over there just months before a general election as well as political ‘cat and mouse’ between ruling Fine Gael and minority op- position party Fianna Fail.
As so many times in Ire- land’s past, it is being teed up as a general election issue. The leader of Fine Gael’s junior coalition partner the Labour Party, Tanaiste Joan Burton, trailing very badly in opinion polls, has already indicated that liberalising abortion law is a potential vote winner for it among its own supporters.
She has said it would be a precondition for her party reentering coalition with FG – assuming it has enough TDs. Sinn Fein says abolishing the eighth amendment will be a manifesto pledge for it.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny surprised many in his own party last week when he said he would allow decision to allow Fine Gael TDs a free vote on a proposed repeal of Ireland’s eighth constitutional amendment to prevent a split in his own party.
His U-turn came after one of his Cabinet members, Children’s Minister Dr James Reilly – a former Health Minister – called for Ireland’s hugely restrictive laws to be reconsidered and a referendum held to repeal the eighth amendment.
Moving swiftly to try and neutralise the issue Mr. Kenny told his own parliamentary party at a meeting in the Dail that he planned to put the abortion issue to a “citizen’s convention” with Fine Gael TDs and senators allowed a free vote on its recommendations.
Mr Kenny did not allowing a free vote on 2013’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill which saw five TDs and two senators expelled from the party for de- fying the whip. The reluctance of politicians in Dail Eireann to deal with the issue is mirrored in Northern Ireland where a High Court judge in Belfast, who ruled the North’s abortion laws breach human rights, said he despaired of Stormont’s politicians actually doing anything about it.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International last week organised 838 doctors from 44 countries, including some of Ireland’s most prominent obstetricians and psychiatrists, to call on Irish politicians, in a letter, to lift the threat of a 14-year jail sentence for providing or assisting in the provision of abortion, even, as in the unresolved X case of twenty years ago, in cases where children are involved or babies have fatal foetal abnormalities.
The Irish branch of Amnesty International, led by Colm O’Gorman, said: “We have seen women and girls pregnant as a result of rape forced to carry the foetus to term and give birth.
“International law is clear: at the very least women and girls should have access to an abortion when the pregnancy poses a risk to their life or health, in cases of severe or fatal foetal impairment, and in cases of rape or incest. International law also says that under no circumstances should a woman be made a criminal for having an abortion.”
Among those who signed the letter were some of Ireland’s leading childbirth experts including Dr Peter Boylan, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the national maternity hospital in Dublin’s Holles Street hospital, and Dr Veronica O’Keane, professor in psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.
They believe Ireland’s 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy law inhibits medical teams from freely deciding what is best for patients because of the fear of prosecution, imprisonment and being sued. Ireland’s courts are due to hear the landmark case of a young asylum seeker raped in her native country who was forced to go through with her pregnancy and a caesarean delivery after which the child was put up for adoption.
Meanwhile, a High Court trial date has been set for next March 10 for the husband of Savita Halappanavar to sue Ireland’s Health Services Executive over her death in Galway three years ago.
Thirty-one-year old dentist Savita Halappanavar was pregnant with her first child when she presented at University College Hospital Galway with pains. She died a week later – on 28 October, 2012 – after miscarrying and contracting E Coli, leading to septic shock. An inquest heard she had repeatedly asked for a termination but because a heartbeat was detected and the fact that her life did not appear to be in danger at that time, an abortion could not be carried out under the law.
A review into the handling of her case found that ‘inadequate assessment and monitoring’ were contributory factors in her death.
Ireland’s Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who qualified as a medical doctor and increased in personal popularity when he became openly gay, said he and the Fine Gael party will remain pro-life and opposed to abortion on demand – but that did not mean they did not recognize flaws in the current law.
A London doctor and his two nurses last week denied causing the death of a woman who travelled from Ireland for an abortion in England. They will go on trial, expected to last six weeks, at the Old Bailey in March.
Aisha Chithira (32) died after having a termination at a Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, west London, on 21 January, 2012. Dr Adedayo Adedeji (63) of Hornchurch, Essex, is accused of her manslaughter by gross negligence as are two nurses, Margaret Miller (55) from Camberley, Surrey, and Gemma Pullen (32) from Stoke-on- Trent, Staffordshire.
All three say they are not guilty of the charge: killing Ms Chithira at a short hearing at the Old Bailey before Judge Charles Wide. They are also being prosecuted for failing to take reasonable care of Ms. Chithira contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974