Why are politicians still pretending Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland?

While our legislators bask in their moral superiority, thousands of Irish women have to travel to the UK in order to have an abortion, says Anna Carey.

If you’re Irish and pro-choice, you find yourself cheering for the introduction of abortion legislation that is, by the standards of most western countries, horrifically restrictive. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 allows a woman to obtain an abortion in order to save her life, including the threat of suicide. This law was too liberal for some Fine Gael TDs, including one junior minister who voted against it and has resigned her post. Perhaps most disturbingly, the law also states that anyone obtaining an abortion outside these circumstances can be given a maximum 14 year prison sentence. But for us, the fact that the bill was voted into law last night by 127 votes to 31 still counts as a small victory. Because it’s taken decades to get this far.

In 1992, the Supreme Court declared that a suicidal 14 year old rape victim referred to as Miss X had the right to an abortion under the Irish constitution, which enshrined her own right to life. In a referendum that year, the Irish people agreed with the Supreme Court that suicide counted as a threat to a woman’s life. But, fearing a conservative backlash, successive governments refused to introduce the necessary legislation, and thousands of Irish women did what they’d been doing for decades – they went to England, if they could afford it, and had their abortions there.

It took a tragedy for a bill to finally emerge – the death last year of Savita Halappanavar, whose death from septicemia, after doctors refused to carry out an abortion because the foetus she was miscarrying still had a heartbeat, highlighted the dangers of this legal limbo. Hopefully the new law will ensure this never happens again.

But there is much more work to do. For women confronted with the tragedy of a fatal foetal abnormality, for women who have been raped, for women whose health will be damaged by giving birth, for women who just do not want to have a child, nothing has changed. And nothing will, until yet another referendum manages to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional change introduced in 1983 which officially gave an Irish woman and her foetus an equal right to life. Until that amendment is removed, there is no chance of liberalising Irish abortion law. The campaign for a new referendum is underway.

When this issue is discussed abroad, much is made of the fact that Ireland is supposedly devoutly Catholic. But while 84 per cent of us claim to be Catholic, just 34 per cent actually attend Mass, and only 14 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds are regular Mass goers. Church teachings on sexual and reproductive issues are ignored by the majority of the population. A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed that while 89 per cent supported abortion to save a woman’s life, over 80 per cent also supported abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in cases of rape. 78 per cent said abortion should be allowed to save a woman’s health. Only 39 per cent supported abortion in cases where a woman deemed it to be in her best interest, but just 46 per cent were against this, which still isn’t a majority. Younger people were much more likely to be in favour of abortion rights.

The idea that Ireland is rabidly anti-abortion simply isn’t true – which is also proved by the thousands of Irish women who quietly go to Britain every year; official statistics released this week showed that 4,000 did so in 2012, and that only includes those who gave Irish addresses. And yet plenty of our legislators are happy to cater to well-funded religious extremists, who talk of floodgates and “abortion regimes”. They’re happy to listen to a church that still owes the Irish state €380m in compensation for sexual abuse victims. They’re happy to pretend that Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland. And while they ignore the increasingly liberal public and bask in their moral superiority, thousands of women will quietly get on a plane and let the country next door take care of them.

Read Sarah Ditum on how Ireland has avoided confronting its repressive laws by exporting its abortions.

 

An anti-abortion protester. Photograph: Getty Images
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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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