–Post by ALRANZ National President Dr. Morgan Healy–
Any anniversary offers a good opportunity to stop and assess: where have we been and where do we want to go? On 6 February 2012 Ireland stopped to remember that same day 20 years earlier. That was the day the Republic of Ireland (and the world) was rocked by the X Case: an Attorney General charged with maintaining the law, seized a 14-year-old rape victim’s passport and interned her within the State, forcing her to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. For those who were not around in 1992 or do not remember, the X Case brought to the fore yet again the ‘contentious’ issue of abortion in Ireland.
The short history of abortion in the Republic is that it is still covered in the 1861 Crimes Act (part of Ireland’s colonial past). Abortion has never been widely available or legal in Ireland. However, this was not sufficient for the vociferous anti-choice movement. So in 1983, a constitutional amendment was passed by the people and enshrined within State law that equated the right to life of the mother with that of her fetus. Article 40.3.3 of Bunreacht na hEireann reads:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
1983 to 1992 would be one of the most oppressive periods of the anti-abortion regime in Ireland.
However, it was not until 1992 that the people of Ireland experienced the full meaning of Article 40.3.3. On learning that their 14-year-old daughter had been raped by a family friend and was pregnant, X’s parents contact the police to ensure that DNA from the terminated fetus could be used in evidence against the perpetrator. X and her family were told that any attempt to abort the fetus was against Irish law and that X would have to continue with the pregnancy (in accordance with Irish law the only life that was at risk was that of the ‘unborn’).
The case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the judges found in favour of X, ruling that because X was suicidal her life was at risk and she should be allowed to go to England for a termination. (At no time was it assumed that the termination would be available in Ireland). X is reported to have miscarried before the termination was done.
The then Government’s response was to put forward three referenda: two of which were passed by a majority: one on the freedom to abortion information and services outside of Ireland and the other on the right to travel outside of the country for an abortion. The third, which tried to roll back the ruling in the X Case, outlawing suicide as a reasonable defense, was defeated.
This has been the state of Ireland’s abortion laws for the last 20 years (with several more cases like X before the Court and one more attempt by the Ahern Government in 2002 to roll back the X case again). It was only in December 2010 that any shift in the status quo has become a possibility. That was a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which found that Ireland had contravened the right of C, a cancer patient who was denied an abortion. Happily this has instilled a new sense of fire and urgency in the Irish pro-choice movement. Using the X Case as a catalyst for change, pro-choicers have been holding various events across the country and calling on people to put pressure on the Government.
What will happen remains to be seen. The Kenny Government has abdicated responsibility and chosen to appoint a 14 member expert panel to assess how best to proceed with meeting the requirements of the ECHR ruling. Ultimately, what the majority of pro-choicers are calling for (and what they have been calling for the last 20 years) is legislating for the X Case ruling, of which the majority of Irish people support. Earth shattering, I don’t think so. If it happens, will the flood gates open and Irish women will be falling over themselves to have a termination, international trends refute the likelihood. But what we all should remember is that the lived reality of repressive and criminal abortion laws on those that suffer the most – women.
X is 34 this year. Her identity is still unknown. I wonder what she thinks about Ireland’s continued desire to criminalise women for their reproductive decisions?