Weekly Roundup: Jeopardy around the Globe and Weighing in on New Legislation

Welcome to another ARC Weekly Roundup, where each week our MediaWatch team highlights how abortion is discussed in the media at home and abroad.

Praise and perdition

Last Friday brought with it praise from the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers for the Government’s progress in enacting abortion legislation. Following up on the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Irish State was in breach because of a lack of such legislation, the committee welcomed the publication of the heads of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill and was satisfied with the Government’s intent to implement legislation by July, Newstalk reported.

Contrary to this positive take on the bill, the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) released a statement opposing the drafted legislation and compared the decision not to hold a free vote on the bill to the actions of a “totalitarian regime”, The Irish Times recounted.

The archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin also pushed for a free vote. Speaking to the Irish Independent, he said that politicians should not be forced to go against their conscience and appealed to the Government not to take disciplinary action against those who would not be swayed.

According to RTÉ, the archbishop’s call for a free vote was rejected by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and so Fine Gael members will be expected to fall in with the party line.

Fianna Fáil members, however, will have the option of a free vote. A survey of these 33 TDs and senators conducted by TheJournal.ie found that most were unwilling to divulge their position on the matter, with only four TDs and three senators explicitly stating their support for the bill and six TDs and six senators confirming their opposition.

Meanwhile, a rally against abortion was held in Dublin’s Merrion Square on Saturday. Speakers at the ‘Vigil for Life’ included Maria Steen from the Iona Institute, Edel Best from Women Hurt and John McAreavey, widower to Michaela, through a video message.

Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte was counted among the attendees, but the total tally of those present varies in reports. TheJournal.ie puts a Garda estimate at 30,000 while RTÉ quotes 40,000 from the organisers. Ann Marie Hourihane’s report from the event for The Irish Times claims 20,000, and she is even skeptical of that figure.

Abortion bans put women at risk 

In our last media round-up, we told you about a 22-year-old woman in El Salvador suffering from lupus and kidney failure who was refused permission to have an abortion by the Supreme Court, despite her declining health due to her pregnancy and the fact that the foetus had developed anencephaly, a fatal foetal abnormality.

In order to save her life without breaking the law, a Caesarean section of her 27-week-old baby was performed on Monday. The baby did not survive, but Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that the woman is stable.

This woman’s story has highlighted how blanket bans on abortion in Latin American countries put women’s lives at risk. “Total bans on abortion violate international human rights laws and the right to life and health,” commented Lilian Sepulveda, head of the global legal programme at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. “When you get total bans on abortion, you find there are more unsafe abortions,” she added.

Thomson Reuters Foundation back up this claim with a 2008 study by the World Health Organisation and the Guttmacher Institute, which found that Latin America had one of the world’s highest abortion rates.

The criminalisation of abortion in El Salvador has led to the imprisonment of 628 women since 1998, and rights groups claim hundreds of these were falsely convicted of inducing abortion when in fact they had naturally miscarried or had other complications.

Opposition from the Catholic Church

Back to Ireland’s abortion issue and counsellor Bill Tormey put forward a motion to repeal the eighth amendment at a Dublin City Council meeting on Monday. Labour counsellor for Clontarf Jane Horgan-Jones let us know via Twitter that the council voted in favour.

On Tuesday, Ireland’s Catholic bishops issued a statement urging the Government to “Choose life!” But the life they mean, specifically, is that of an unborn child. Released ahead of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, the statement conceded that there are medical treatments that would save pregnant women but endanger their baby, and said that this would be ethically permissible provided every effort was made to save both lives, TheJournal.ie reports.

“This is different from abortion, which is the direct and intentional taking of the innocent life of the unborn. No matter what legislation is passed in any country, abortion is, and always will be, gravely wrong,” the statement read.

The bishop of Kilmore Leo O’Reilly asked the Irish people to pray for politicians as a special cabinet meeting to finalise the bill took place on Wednesday. Speaking to Shannonside Radio, he also called for a free vote on the issue and though he didn’t quite threaten TDs in favour of the legislation with excommunication, he did advise that they seek out a priest.

Ahead of the publication of the final bill, TheJournal.ie reported on the Taoiseach’s stance in the face of being branded a murderer by the pro-life side. “I am getting medals, scapulars, plastic foetuses, letters written in blood, telephone calls all over the systems and it’s not confined to me,” Kenny revealed.

But, despite this, the Government leader stated, “I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”

The final Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill

The final draft of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was published shortly after midnight on Thursday, with changes to the draft heads of bill published in April noted by The Irish Times.

Minister for Health James Reilly said the new bill clarified the law for both women and medical practitioners. The main points include a conscientious objection clause for medical practitioners who can refuse to perform an abortion but will have to arrange transfer of care. The same provision is not made available to medical institutions, though.

“All institutions mentioned [in the Bill] are funded by the taxpayer,” explained Minister Reilly. “We could not have a situation where a service funded by the taxpayer could deprive a citizen of their rights.”

The number of hospitals authorised to perform abortions was increased from 19 to 25 in the new bill, which also grants the Minister of Health the power suspend these services if an institution is found to be in breach of the legislation.

Bill is both welcomed and rejected

A poll conducted by The Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI published on Thursday found that 75% of the country is in favour of action on X. However, the final bill has failed to please either side of the debate.

Immediate questions came from Fine Gael TDs Peter Mathews, Terence Flanagan and Michelle Mulherin and senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames, and, speaking on RTÉ radio with Pat Kenny, Mathews revealed plans to table a motion for next Wednesday’s parliamentary party meeting to have a “personal conscience vote” on the legislation.

On RTÉ’s News at One, Fine Gael senator Paul Bradford expressed his concern that the bill could lead to abortion on demand, and also expressed his wishes for a free vote on the matter.

Among the first to respond to the publication of the bill was Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who said, “If this bill is passed there will be no need for worry, no reason for doubt on the part of the woman, her family or the medical professionals concerned,” TheJournal.ie reports.

Sinn Féin welcomed publication of the bill, except TD Peadar Tóibín, who is likely to go against his own party on this issue.

Dr Peter Boylan, former master of the National Maternity Hospital also welcomed the changes and does not anticipate a huge swell in the number of Irish terminations – just that they may now actually happen on Irish soil. He expects that women would not put themselves through such a rigorous process if it was not a serious issue.

Bill criticism from abortion rights campaigners

The Abortion Rights Campaign sees the bill as a step in the right direction, but it leaves many women with their hands tied. “It’s immediately apparent from this bill that it ignores the needs of the majority of women in Ireland who seek abortions,” said spokesperson Sinéad Redmond. “It continues to tie the hands of the many families each year faced with a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, women whose health is endangered by pregnancy, as well as women made pregnant by rape or incest.”

“We are deeply concerned that the bill ignores the advice of the Expert Group Report on Abortion and the expert perinatal psychiatrists consulted, by differentiating between mental and physical health,” added fellow ARC spokesperson Cathie Doherty, referring to the fact that bill expects an obstetrician to asses a woman’s suicide risk.

The Action on X campaign’s response to the bill was posted on their Facebook page. While they also welcomed its publication after two decades of campaigning, they remain critical of the restrictions included.

“The bill continues to pose abortion as a criminal offence, with a fine and/or 14-year sentence for doctors, women and girls – including those who use abortion pills to end an unwanted pregnancy,” said spokesperson Ailbhe Smyth, who was also critical of the Health Minister’s new power to suspend the licence for a hospital providing abortion services. “There is no need for this provision: the Minister can monitor the activities of a hospital in conjunction with HIQA,” she stated.

Action on X also objects to the requirement for up to four practitioners to agree that a woman is suicidal due to an unwanted pregnancy. “It will deter many despairing women from even asking for an abortion in Ireland – especially when they would have to face examination by a further review panel of three if one of the first three said ‘No’,” said Smyth.

Action on X spokesperson Sinead Kennedy also called for further clarification on how “real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life” is to be assessed and also requested that hospitals are obliged to ensure they have medical practitioners willing to perform abortions on their staff.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) objected to the criminal sanction. “In the A, B and C v Ireland case, the European Court of Human Rights criticised the inclusion of harsh criminal sanctions in Irish law as a significant ‘chilling factor’ for both women and their doctors. It is the IFPA’s view that the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill not only maintains, but substantially reinforces this chilling effect,” said chief executive Niall Behan.

Rabble published the reaction of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), who also raised grave concerns. “It appears that the possibility of conscientious objection has been strengthened to the detriment of the woman’s life so that medical personnel are not obliged to carry out an abortion,” said NWCI women’s health and human rights worker Jacqueline Healy. “No individual’s conscience should be allowed to put a woman’s life in danger. We believe that there should be an explicit duty to treat in a medical emergency regardless of any conscientious objection.”

Vital importance of repealing the eight amendment

As well as the publication of the final Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, Thursday also saw the release of the HSE’s final report on the death of Savita Halappanavar.

This report, published by The Irish Times, makes it clear that clinical staff at Galway University Hospital failed to properly assess or monitor Savita’s condition and identified three significant failures that led to her death.

The report recommends urgent amendments to Irish law and, if necessary the Constitution, as well as the establishment of national guidelines on infection and pregnancy to aid decision-making in emergency cases.

In response to the report, the Abortion Rights Campaign expressed their sympathy to Savita’s husband Praveen, as well as her family and friends, and reiterated its call to repeal the eighth amendment.

“We consider it utterly appalling that in today’s Ireland, medical staff had their job of saving a woman’s life and health made more difficult by Irish law,” said campaign spokesperson Sarah McCarthy.

“It’s very worrying to know that today’s draft legislation won’t prevent the possibility of this happening again to another pregnant woman presenting with an early second trimester miscarriage. We can’t allow again a foetal heartbeat to be put before a woman’s life. The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution must now be repealed,” fellow spokesperson Órlaith Reidy added.

Intimidation tactics 

Finally, on Thursday, RTÉ News reported on widespread intimidation experienced by TDs around the issue of abortion, including being spat at, phone calls to their homes after midnight, threats to burn down their houses, and, in the case of one TD, the threat that her throat would be cut.

Independent TD John Halligan condemned the Catholic Church for its attempts to influence TDs on the legislation, calling the institution undemocratic and historically anti-women.

In contrast, Eamon Gilmore said all churches have the right to express their point of view to Government, but that this should be done with respect.

The Abortion Rights Campaign is making an impact, but we need to continue this work. If you’re interested in getting involved, join us for an open meeting in the Teachers Club, Parnell Square, Dublin on June 17th.