Time to legislate for life-saving abortion

Today marks the date in 1992 when the parents of a pregnant 14-year-old took their daughter to England for an abortion. She had been raped by a friend of the family. That same day in the High Court, Mr Justice Declan Costello issued a temporary injunction to prevent the abortion. Only hours after they had left, the family returned to Ireland. This became known as the X Case.

Now finally, in 2012, a group of TDs including Joan Collins, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace are preparing to force the Government to introduce legislation on life-saving abortions. This move is to be welcomed and supported.

In January 2011, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was unequivocal: Ireland needs legislation to allow abortion in circumstances where the life or health of the mother is at risk.

His statement followed December 2010’s ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on Ireland’s abortion laws, which he added, was “very clear that Ireland was out of kilter [on] human rights”.

He went further, saying Fine Gael’s proposal that the ruling and matters to do with it should be looked at by an All-Party Committee of the Oireachtas was unnecessary. According to his party’s legal advice, neither another Committee nor a constitutional amendment was necessary.

And yet, 13 months later, Minister for Health James Reilly has just appointed yet another expert committee, this time headed by Justice Sean Ryan. Its 14 members include senior civil servants, GPs, consultant obstetricians and legal experts, who are considering how the Coalition Government can implement the Supreme Court ruling on the X Case.

This ruling is now 20 years old. On 30 January 1992 a rape was reported to the Gardaí. On 6 February the parents of the pregnant 14-year-old made swift arrangements for an abortion in England because their daughter said she would rather end her own life than continue the pregnancy to term. The then Attorney General Harry Whelehan swung into action, winning a temporary High Court injunction that forced the family to return to Ireland.

The Irish Times carried the story some days later. All hell broke loose when Justice Declan Costello went on to grant a permanent injunction. Protesters took to the streets in their thousands to express their shock and anger at the treatment of X. The actions of the Attorney General and a High Court judge provoked a sea-change in Irish opinion on abortion.

The girl’s parents lodged an appeal, applying for an early hearing. On 6 March, the Supreme Court acknowledged her right to life and ruled that a woman has a right to abortion in Ireland if her life is at risk, including at risk by suicide.

Back then, the late Supreme Court judge, Niall McCarthy, emphasised the need for legislation saying: “The failure of the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable.”

Two decades later, after numerous expert committees, two referendums in which the people vindicated a woman’s right to life-saving abortion, several court rulings doing the same, and an acknowledgment from the current Government’s deputy leader that such legislation is necessary – all Labour and Fine Gael are giving us is yet another expert committee.

It is vital that the move by this group of TDs is supported, both inside and outside the Dáil.  The courts have ruled, the people have spoken – it’s time for the Government to act. {jathumbnailoff}

Therese Caherty, Feminist Open Forum, on behalf of Action on X, an alliance of groups and individuals who call on the Irish Government to act immediately to implement appropriate legislation on the right to abortion in Ireland, 20 years after the X case and one year after the C case judgment.