Pro-life, even in death

Irish voters face a referendum that would prohibit abortion even when suicide is a health risk for the mother.

By Quentin Fottrell

Published March 1, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Despite strict antiabortion legislation and constitutional protection of "the unborn child," Ireland grapples almost constantly with the issue of abortion rights. Voters failed to pass referenda in 1983 and 1992 that might have paved the way for legal abortion; at the same time, at least 6,500 women still travel from Ireland to Britain every year to legally terminate their pregnancies. Almost 100,000 have made the trip since abortion was legalized in Britain in 1967.

Next week, Irish voters will decide the fate of a new bill designed to reverse a change in the law that allows doctors to terminate a pregnancy where there is "a real and substantial risk" to the mother's health. The referendum marks the 10th anniversary of the so-called "X case," in which a 14-year-old victim of sexual abuse was barred from traveling to Britain for an abortion, but was subsequently allowed to go after the country's highest court ruled that she was suicidal and therefore at risk. The case led to a decision to allow abortion on Irish soil in the event that suicide -- and therefore a threat to the mother's life -- appeared likely. The measure on the ballot next week would reverse this decision, removing suicide as a health risk and legal basis for abortion.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, leader of the center-right Fianna Fail party, had promised antiabortion activists, as well as the Catholic Church, that he would offer a referendum on the suicide exclusion as soon as possible, and, in the apparent hope of distracting voters from the failing "Celtic Tiger" economy, he pushed to have a vote before spring. Unfortunately, confusion and anger about the referendum have replaced financial angst, and much distraction comes from the retelling of stories about pregnant teenagers whose heartbreaking cases many believe have stigmatized Ireland, as well as shamed its citizens.

The case of Anne Lovett, a 15-year-old pregnant schoolgirl, perhaps deserves the most attention, though it happened in 1984. Lovett was found dead in a grotto of the Virgin Mary in the tiny village of Granard, County Longford. She was in labor, but hadn't told anyone she was pregnant. According to the postmortem, she died of exposure and hemorrhage after lying for four hours in the wind and rain.

It took two weeks for the story to reach the national press and even then local papers were reluctant to cover it. Those close to Lovett claimed ignorance of her pregnancy and insisted they'd have helped had they known. An inquest revealed that people did know, but thought it was none of their business.

Lovett's case is particularly relevant as Irish voters go to the polls: The frightened teenager essentially killed herself instead of getting an abortion, proving that a pregnant woman can indeed be suicidal, if only for lack of alternatives to pregnancy in Ireland. The tragedy also shows that the suicide of a pregnant woman can bring a horrific end to the life of the child.

In light of Lovett's death and the "X case," the proposal to exclude suicide as a threat to a woman's health appears more than a little draconian to some; then again, church influence in Irish government is so strong that suicide was not decriminalized until 1993. (Ireland was the last European country to decriminalize it, and still has one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe.)

Increasingly, there is a sense of outrage inside Ireland, which now has the youngest population in the Europe. A new generation of citizens has demonstrated growing religious skepticism, largely due to sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church since the 1990s. It is not the same place it was 30 years ago, when single mothers frequently were whisked away to work in industrial laundries and forced to give up their children.

But the rebellion of those who would defy the church over abortion has mostly been expressed indirectly. Rather than openly challenge the abortion ban by breaking the law, those who favor choice voice their opinions but ultimately terminate their pregnancies outside the country. This practice has been dubbed "an Irish solution to an Irish problem," and sustained by a referendum that gave Irish women the right to travel to obtain abortions, and another that made information on how to obtain an abortion overseas available to all. But the "out of sight, out of mind" approach has been less and less effective as cases like that of the 14-year-old abuse victim draw the attention of voters and lawmakers, as well as the outside world.

Polls on the suicide referendum reflect the kind of confusion seen in Irish abortion referenda campaigns of the past. Recent surveys show that 39 percent of Irish voters are in favor of the measure, 34 percent are against and 21 percent are undecided. Hastily made campaign posters shout, "Protect Women & Save Babies. Vote Yes!" and "Save The Unborn. Vote No!" -- both from the antiabortion lobby. The pro-abortion-rights left-wing Labour Party tried to put it more simply: "Let's trust women -- protect women's right to life -- vote no."

Prime Minister Ahern, with strong support from the Roman Catholic Church, has insisted that the inclusion of suicide as a threat to a woman's life will lead to an "enormous" increase in abortions, though it hasn't happened in the decade following the X case ruling. He has referred to the suicide provision as a loophole, implying that women who say they are suicidal could be lying, which, of course, is something one wouldn't know for sure until it was too late.

Antiabortion activists who support Ahern and the church claim -- without specific citation -- that "a majority of psychiatric experts agreed" that women were more likely to commit suicide if they had an abortion than if they had the baby, thus making the availability of abortion a threat to the mother's life. Tom Fahy, professor of psychiatry at the National University of Ireland, says, however, that the connection, if any, between suicide and abortion is complex. "Suicide itself is rare -- it is rare after childbirth, miscarriage or abortion. It is very rare in pregnancy but does occur."

Doctors for Choice, a voluntary organization of about 60 physicians, came together with the express purpose of opposing the suicide exclusion. Mindful of the bitter differences of opinion between the pro-life and pro-choice lobbies, the group keeps members' identities confidential. But one of its founders, Dr. Mary Favier, says the referendum ignores the seriousness of mental health disorders and prohibits doctors from using their professional judgment to determine whether pregnancy creates a legitimate risk of suicide. She believes the proposed law will make a pregnant woman's life worth less than that of a fetus -- evidence, she says, that the Irish government is "playing politics with a woman's right to life."

Joining Doctors for Choice in opposing the measure is the 300,000-member National Women's Council (NWC), an umbrella group that includes the traditionally conservative Irish Countrywomen's Association and the Catholic Women's Federation. NWC chairwoman Grainne Healy calls the referendum "possibly one of the most anti-women" laws ever proposed, and says that the 12-year sentence proposed by the measure for women who attempt to procure an abortion is "terrifying." (The man who raped the 14-year-old girl in the X case received a 14-year prison sentence that was reduced on appeal to four. He was out of prison in three years; two years later, in 1997, he was accused of sexually assaulting another 14-year-old girl.)

In a predictable nod to the "X Case," Ireland's minister for health recently said that suicidal victims of rape and incest could have overseas abortions paid for by their local health board. But some lawyers say if a minor were raped, pregnant and taken into state care, permission would still be needed from the courts to allow the girl to travel.

Ahern, meanwhile, has attempted to placate some wavering voters with a promise that the government would establish a state-run crisis pregnancy agency that would offer "caring, practical intervention" in an effort to reduce the number of women traveling to England for abortions. Yet for women without life-threatening conditions as defined by the law, the "meaningful options" offered by the government-run agency would not include abortion. Ahern also, rather surprisingly, proposed to legalize an over-the-counter morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy.

The rather bold move of bringing contraception into the mix is likely to infuriate conservative and antiabortion voters, whom Ahern was attempting to appease in the first place by offering a referendum to clarify the suicide issue. Indeed, the government is taking a gamble by holding this vote just two months before a general election when even those who wanted to eliminate the suicide exclusion are angry about the speed with which this complicated referendum has been put to the public. (Ahern, who appears to have alienated the media-savvy abortion-rights lobby and split the powerful antiabortion vote, has refused to have a television debate with other political leaders on the issue.)

More and more, it is looking like this abortion referendum could be the first to broaden, rather than restrict, the narrow conditions for abortion on Irish soil, while pushing a shift in the perception of suicide from a crime to an issue of mental health. If nothing else, many Irish citizens may be prepared to vote against the suicide exclusion because of the attention it would bring to a country so clearly still under the influence of the church. The distinction of becoming the first developed country to institute new restrictions for women in the 21st century is something that many Irish voters, still reeling from the publicity of the X case, would like to avoid.

Quentin Fottrell

Quentin Fottrell is a freelance writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He can be contacted via his Web site.

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Abortion Suicide