By Colette Browne
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
FINALLY the lie, that those who opt to terminate their pregnancies are more susceptible to mental illness, has been nailed.
"The best current evidence suggests that it makes no difference to a woman’s mental health whether she chooses to have an abortion or to continue with the pregnancy," concluded the biggest worldwide study of the relationship between termination and mental wellbeing, the results of which were published on Friday.
Britain’s National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH) at the Royal College of Psychiatrists assessed 44 studies from 1990-2011 that examined data on hundreds of thousands of women at least 90 days after an abortion.
Crucially, the researchers found that it was the unwanted pregnancy itself, and not a woman’s decision to either opt for an abortion or to have the baby, that led to a heightened risk of mental health problems.
Although the results, from an independent and reputable academic study, are welcome, they should have been obvious to anyone willing to engage their critical faculties on the issue.
Last year, nearly 5,000 Irish women travelled to Britain to terminate their pregnancies. In previous years more than 6,000 women have made the same journey. Extrapolating these conservative figures suggests that more than 100,000 Irish women have chosen to end their pregnancies over the past 20 years alone. If the procedure was really the catalyst for a variety of mental health disorders, then where are all of these mentally ill women hiding? It can be hard for those ideologically opposed to abortion for religious and moral reasons to fathom but, more often than not, women who undergo an abortion feel sadness but relief, and relatively few will live to regret their decision. Travelling to Britain to end one’s pregnancy is not a decision that is taken lightly. Indeed, it’s impossible to take it lightly because the "anywhere but here" attitude of our legislature further compounds an already stressful situation by necessitating travel to another state.
The law in Ireland is currently governed by the antiquated Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which makes it an offence, "to procure, attempt to procure, administer or to assist in an abortion", punishable by life in prison. The constitutionally guaranteed right to life of the unborn contained in Article 40 acknowledges the "due regard to the equal right to life of the mother" and was most recently amended, following a referendum in 1992, to state that the ban did not limit a woman’s right to travel or obtain information about abortion.
Since then, various parties have published policy documents and a Fianna Fáil-led government, in a 2002 referendum, proposed an amendment to the constitution that would have, bizarrely, allowed abortion in cases where a woman’s life was at risk arising from pregnancy but not where suicide was threatened. Common sense prevailed and that was defeated, but legislative change was long-fingered and ultimately forgotten, leaving the current legal quagmire unchanged.
The decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in its December 2010 judgment in the A, B, and C case, cited "discordance between the social reality and the law" and found the state had breached the human rights of one of the plaintiffs. C was in remission from a rare form of cancer and feared that her pregnancy would cause her to relapse. However, she found it impossible to get clear medical, or legal, information in this country because of the opaque nature of the current law and the state’s failure to introduce legislation that firmly establishes in what circumstances a woman is entitled to a lawful abortion.
The court found "no criteria or procedures have been laid down in Irish law, whether in legislation, case law or otherwise, by which that risk [to the life of the mother] is to be measured or determined, leading to uncertainty as to its precise application". So, what’s happened exactly 12 months on from this landmark judgment? Absolutely nothing.
The Government, having promised to finally grasp the nettle and deal with the matter judiciously, bottled it by announcing it would convene an expert group to come up with advice. With no sign of the expert group being empanelled by October, Justice Minister Alan Shatter told a UN meeting that the composition of the group would be announced the following month. Then, at the end of November, he said the announcement was being deferred until the New Year.
Quite apart from clarifying the thorny issue of abortion, the Government is clearly too cowardly to even publish the terms of reference for its own expert group because it can only do one of two things with the ECHR judgment — ask the expert group to come up with draft legislation, outlining in what circumstances a women can avail of an abortion, or ask it to devise yet another constitutional amendment that further erodes the right to an abortion in this country.
Considering that the latter option has already been put before the people and rejected, it seems inevitable that historic legislation legalising abortion, in very circumscribed circumstances, will have to be eventually drafted and enacted.
So, this column, in an act of uncharacteristic generosity, is prepared to offer some free advice to the minister, which will negate the unnecessary expense of establishing yet another pointless talking shop — reread the ABC judgment and have your well-paid minions draft some legislation. It couldn’t be easier and, by the way, that’s what they’re paid for.
NOW, of course there exists a vocal contingent that doesn’t want the minister to do that. Those on the pro-life side of this debate find it abhorrent that such legislation, enshrining in statute a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy right here in Ireland, would be introduced. To those people I say, tough. European law takes supremacy over domestic law and the ruling of the ECHR is binding. Although, there’s no legal compunction to like it.
Meanwhile, proving the law really is an ass, the advent of the internet means that many women, instead of opting for expensive travel to Britain, are simply going online to buy an abortion pill which they then have delivered to their homes. In 2009, the Irish Medicines Board reported that it seized 1,216 such pills in 60 separate consignments — 52 addressed to women and, in a sinister development, 12 addressed to men. As the recession continues to bite, an increasing number of women are likely to simply opt to induce their own abortion at home, and pay €70 online, instead of travelling abroad at an average cost of €1,200.
Furthermore, recent surveys have also found the electorate’s attitude to abortion is changing with three-quarters now favouring a relaxation of our restrictive laws and more than 50% of GPs believing abortion should be available to any woman who wants it.
So, while the minister’s talking shop will likely have some very worthy debates, and maybe he’ll even surprise the cynics by introducing the appropriate legislation at some distant point in the future, it is the anachronistic ban on abortion in this country that remains the real problem.