19 November 2012

Further thoughts on abortion

Abortion in the UK and the Republic of Ireland ("the state") is illegal; both countries are subject to the same Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In Great Britain — but not in N Ireland — the Abortion Act 1967 did not make abortion in certain cases legal; rather, it provided a legal defence to any charge of procuring an (illegal) abortion. When the Republic was founded, is continued with the common law legal system, and kept pre-existing laws.

In the Republic there have been no legislative changes in relation to abortion. However, the Supreme Court gave a ruling in 1992, permitting an abortion in very limited circumstances, where the life of the mother was in danger. Not just her health, it had to be her life which was endangered. There is no law which confirms this. The Irish Constitution now recognises that life begins at conception; the value of the mother’s and the foetus’s lives are equal.

The 1992 ruling came about in relation to the case of ‘X’, a fourteen-year old child who had been repeatedly raped and had become pregnant. Before taking her to England for an abortion, the father asked of the Garda (police) whether the foetus’s DNA would be useful. X’s planned trip became known to the authorities, who applied to the High Court; and the Court banned X from leaving the state. (You read that correctly; X was banned from leaving Ireland.) An application to the Supreme Court overturned this, permitting X to travel, and, as X was suicidal, issuing its guidelines. You might well think that “hard cases make bad law”.

The present position is that the original act is still in force, very slightly modified by the Supreme Court, but without legislative weight; unsurprisingly, there is confusion about what can be done and what cannot be done. (No accurate data are collated, but it does seem that quite a few “abortions” are performed yearly in the state. I don’t know whether these are the result of applications to the High Court.)

As far as I know, there is no legal definition of what “abortion” is and what is not in Ireland. (A dictionary definition of abortion is the premature termination of a pregnancy, without indicating any time limits. Other definitions might be termination before, say, 24 weeks. After this stage any procedure presumably becomes an “induction of pregnancy”. More than just semantics?)

There are some quite depressing instances where perfectly sensible management cannot legally be offered.

Thus, there are occasional sad cases where the foetus dies in utero, but is not expelled as a ‘spontaneous miscarriage’ or ‘spontaneous abortion’. It is possible for the dead foetus to be retained for several weeks, or even a couple of months, during which the mother’s life is not immediately in danger, though potentially it is. It seems to be illegal to ‘abort’ this dead foetus in Ireland; the mother must travel to England, or the Netherlands, for what would otherwise be seen as the correct and appropriate management. Does a dead foetus have the same rights as a live one?

The foetus may show evidence of abnormalities incompatible with life on routine scanning, for example, anencephaly. In this condition, the brain does not develop. Does such a foetus have the same rights as a healthy one? Again, a mother confronted with such a problem cannot be managed legally in the state; she must travel abroad. Alternatively, exactly what are the benefits from allowing the pregnancy to continue to term?

Lest you think I’m inventing scenarios to make a case, there are occasional anecdotal reports of women with such problems being refused treatment, being told that appropriate management in the state would be illegal.

What of an ectopic pregnancy, one that develops in the Fallopian tube rather than in the uterus? Untreated, the pregnancy will grow, and burst the tube, with considerable bleeding, which if not arrested, can be fatal. A tubal pregnancy can be detected by scanning before it has reached a dangerous size; one method of management is pharmaceutical, causing the foetus to die and be expelled. (Alternatively, early operation may abort the pregnancy but salvage the tube.) The woman is saved the risks of rupture and the risks of emergency surgery. Is this legal?

If a woman becomes pregnant after rape, if her life in in danger — if she is suicidal — abortion is legal, or at least there is a Supreme Court judgement to comfort the surgeon. But if her life is not in danger, yet she wishes an abortion, the procedure cannot be legally performed in the state. She must go abroad. She is the victim of a crime, yet must carry the consequences of that crime; and for how long?

I’ve said nothing about abortion for ‘social’ reasons, about abortion ‘on demand’, and I don’t intend to, other than to indicate that what I’ve discussed above falls into a different category.

But I will comment on two other areas. Firstly, the widespread use of propaganda by both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” groups, rather than accurate facts; the use of “scare tactics”. This doesn’t help either side. Secondly, there is no male equivalent of abortion, no operation or procedure that is in any way comparable. And yet many of those who are most vocal are men. Men in the “pro-life” group seem to think, inter alia, that they still have control of women’s bodies; their thinking seems unchanged from the neolithic origins of the patriarchy, with its insistence on virginity and the rights of inheritance, though they are probably unaware of this, and would deny it. At least, that seems to be how they express some of their arguments.  And “pro-choice” men, who are perhaps a minority amongst men, what is their agenda? Most of the Irish legislature is male.

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