Home > Irish politics, Social and moral issues > Outcome of the abortion bill

Outcome of the abortion bill

The Heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill seem to fulfill minimal requirements of legislation in line with the ruling in Attorney General v. X.

In the wording of the first paragraph of Article 40.3.3°,

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

there are two clauses that the government had to consider in drafting this legislation, ‘equal’ and ‘as far as practicable’. It also had to be considered the ruling of the Supreme Court that ‘the risks to the life of the mother which should be considered by the Court included a real and substantial risk that the mother might commit suicide’.

In all cases, the meaning of Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Article 34.4.5°–6° is itself explicit in this regard. Their ruling in 1992 meant that a risk of suicide has been grounds for abortion, not just from that date, but from the insertion of 40.3.3° into the Constitution in 1983. A doctor could have taken it upon themselves to administer an abortion in response to a diagnosis that there was a real and substantial risk that a woman might commit suicide. This legislation does not grant or remove additional rights to either the mother or the unborn; legislation tightly within the framework of Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution cannot do this.

It may not have been the only measure permissible; someone might reasonably ask whether the government’s defence in D. v. Ireland, that there could be a recourse under Irish law for a termination in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, could have been included in this bill. There might also have been flexibility in terms of the nature and composition of panels in the bill.

There will be some members of Fine Gael who break ranks to vote against this. The debate in the coming weeks will show how many they are, but I expect that the bill will come into law in a form not that far from this.

I do not expect that without further constitutional amendment, this bill lead will lead to more than a minimal increase in the number abortions performed in Ireland. Unlike measures in Britain and California from 1967, this bill refers only to situations that threaten the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother. It is not a small thing for a woman to declare that she is suicidal, and it is not something that the medical system takes lightly. The consequences for her personal freedom after such a declaration would be such that for many women seeking to terminate their pregnancy, travelling to Britain would be a preferable outcome.

While campaigners against abortion have resisted legislation in line with the X Case till now, and sought to amend the constitution in 1992 and 2002 to overturn it, I would expect that to largely die away as a focus, given the small scale of the change. Similarly, while legislation for the X Case has served as focus point for those seeking for more widespread access to abortion, that will shift to an amendment to remove 40.3.3, as advocated this week by Labour Cllr Jane Horgan-Jones, which would make legislation on abortion a matter for the Oireachtas, and not a constitutional matter. However, I cannot imagine that referendum occurring for quite some time.

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