Burying our heads in the sand

In the past few days, Government spokespersons have said that  TD Clare Daly’s proposed bill on termination for medical reasons would be opposed “for the same reasons that previous bills were opposed”.  Below is Mary’s view on the subject…

Burying our heads in the sand

Thursday, 3rd May 2007

Almost exactly five years ago Deirdre de Barra publicly revealed the tragic personal circumstances which had afflicted herself and her family. It was an act of great bravery and was widely credited as a turning point in this country’s tortured dealings with the issue of abortion.

Deirdre wrote in a letter to this newspaper (25/2/2002) that her unborn baby had recently been diagnosed with a severe chromosomal abnormality which would result in death soon after birth. At this stage she was 16 weeks pregnant.

She made it clear that this was very much a wanted baby. But she added that “the trauma of this news was vastly exacerbated by the thought of being forced to carry to full term a foetus which would never know extra-uterine life”.

The similarities between her experience and the dreadful situation in which Miss D currently finds herself should come as no surprise. While there is no statistical breakdown on the precise motivations of the roughly 6,000 Irish women who seek abortions in the UK each year, it is reasonable to consider that a number do so as a result of diagnosis of serious foetal abnormality. It is a cruel twist that having already received the devastating news that her baby will die at birth or shortly afterwards, a pregnant woman should then have to face the reality that there is no help for her in this country. All we tell her is that she must carry the pregnancy to term, regardless of her wishes. She can, of course, leave and take her problem elsewhere. We don’t know anything about that, and we don’t want to know. So long as the 6,000 remain anonymous and silent, the sand in which we collectively bury our heads remains comfortably undisturbed.

Every so often, though, reality intrudes, invariably in the form of the stark human suffering involved in such cases. So it is with Miss D’s attempt this morning in the High Court to ensure that she will not be arrested and detained if she tries to leave the country to terminate her pregnancy. As we know her baby’s brain defect will result in certain death almost immediately after birth. Deirdre de Barra’s tragedy provided us with a similar insight five years ago. It had occurred in the maelstrom of the run-up to the fifth and latest referendum to amend the Constitution on abortion.This was the one where the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government of the day attempted to enshrine an entire piece of legislation in the Constitution.

Based on a commitment made in 1997, largely to placate a group of four Independent TDs on who the then government relied for support, the proposal sought to remove a woman’s right to an abortion in this country if she were at risk from suicide. This right had in turn arisen as a result of the X case in 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled that a suicidal 14-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, was entitled to an abortion to safeguard her life.

The 2002 referendum proposal was rejected by the electorate, as indeed had been a similar amendment put 10 years previously in the wake of the X case. Despite a particularly vitriolic campaign, full of dire predictions that a No vote would catapult us into abortion on demand, it was clear that there was no public will to impose draconian restrictions on women already facing such difficult choices in their lives.

However, none of the five abortion referendums so far has yet tackled the question of therapeutic abortion, where the foetus has severe abnormalities. The only official response to Deirdre de Barra’s case in 2002 was a cryptic comment from the government that her situation was not “comprehended” by the proposed amendment to the Constitution.

Interestingly, however, it should be recalled that the three masters of the Dublin maternity hospitals, while supporting the 2002 referendum banning suicide as a reason for abortion, did agree that termination of pregnancy should be legally available in Ireland in cases such as Deirdre de Barra’s.One of her main reasons in revealing her story was to point to the inhumanity involved in forcing her to “secretly seek contact numbers, book flights and accommodation, take trains and taxis to a strange hospital in a foreign city, to meet strange medical staff who see me as yet another statistic of the Irish problem, to be sent back to this country where there is no compassion – or else to carry on for a further five months, with all the attendant mental and physical strain, knowing that there will be a burial and not a baby to look forward to”. She pleaded for legislation to address the issue. In the wake of the 2002 referendum, Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach then as now, said that it would be a matter for the next government – which is of course the one we’ve had for the past five years.

Its refusal to act has been nothing short of craven.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.