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H1>How much better is

British law?

Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion has earned it the label 'a country living in the dark ages'. But, says Ann Bradley, Britain, too, has still to see the light

When the Irish courts ruled that a 14-year old girl, pregnant by rape, could not travel to Britain for an abortion, they caused a storm on both sides of the Irish Sea. Few doubted that abortion was the best solution to the unhappy situation. Even the Irish Bishops Conference, an institution not known for progressive views or tolerance, felt compelled to tell the Catholic Herald that while abortion was always wrong, it was not the church's intention to coerce people to follow its teachings.

Church and state

The church may claim not to coerce people, but the state has no such qualms. And as abortion is unambiguously illegal in Ireland, and the ban has been enshrined in the state constitution since the 1983 referendum, coercion was the order of the day. Until, that is, the supreme court ruled that the girl could go to England, on the grounds that otherwise she might kill herself, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief.

For the Irish authorities the affair was an embarrassment from beginning to end. The Republic of Ireland has been trying to shed its backwoods image and project itself as a modern European state. With a new Taoiseach and a new (woman) president, the Irish government claimed to be free from the ideological baggage of the past. Then the abortion crisis broke and brought all that is perverse about Irish society back to the surface. Ireland, the world's press declared, is still living in the dark ages.

Irish exceptionalism?

That seems like a fair enough comment about a country which does not permit divorce, restricts the availability of contraception, and takes its ban on abortion so far that a cancer patient cannot have treatment that risks the life of the fetus. A state which writes into its constitution that 'mothers shall not be obliged...to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home' will win no prizes for commitment to women's equality.

But is the Irish state's stance on abortion as exceptional as foreign critics like to make out? Or are the attitudes enshrined in the Republic's constitution only a more extreme and rigid version of the values upheld by our 'enlightened' laws?

Is Britain better?

Southern Ireland is just about the most backward capitalist country in Western Europe - a consequence of the way that Irish society has been held back by British domination. As Ireland's economy lags behind, so do its laws and social attitudes.

It is easy for the 'liberals' in the British establishment to point the finger at the inhumane and superstitious religious attitudes which underpin Irish law on abortion. But British law is based on many of the same assumptions - it's just practised in a more flexible way.

In response to the teenage rape victim row, many British commentators observed that it was ludicrous to give legal rights to an embryo or fetus. Quite so. But the British parliament recently took a step down that muddy path when it ruled in favour of regulating what research can and cannot be carried out on embryonic or fetal material. Anti-abortion campaigners here are already asking why, if an embryo has a protected legal status at 15 days, it can be aborted at 15 weeks. As the Times concedes, 'British and Irish abortion laws both accept that the state has some responsibility for the life of the fetus' (19 February 1992).

Rape and the law

The papers here were quick to condemn the barbarity of forcing a young rape victim to bear a resulting child. Quite so. But rape is not a circumstance in which British abortion law permits a woman to end a pregnancy. Nor does the supposedly more progressive British law consider the age of the woman.

Most rape victims, and most 14-year old girls, would be able to get an abortion here because any decent doctor would agree that carrying such a pregnancy to term would be a risk to the woman's mental health. Some might even argue that it would risk her physical health. But the fact remains that the circumstances in which sex took place, and the age of the woman are incidental to the conditions laid down in Britain's 1967 Abortion Act.

Media circus

Nor has the British system been above subjecting women seeking abortions to the legal and media circus. Remember the 'Oxford baby' case in 1987 when a student tried to obtain a court injunction to prevent his girlfriend from aborting 'their baby'?

The woman had taken the post-coital pill, but it had failed and she was stuck with an unwanted pregnancy by a guy who cared so much about her that he was prepared to drag her through the courts and the papers. By the time the Court of Appeal had finally ruled that the girl could have an abortion, the pregnancy was so far advanced, and she was so traumatised by the whole circus, that continuing the pregnancy seemed the only option. So much for humane, discreet British justice.

Warts and all

There is no doubt that most women would find British abortion law, warts and all, preferable to that of the Irish republic. But the Irish should think again before they look to it as a model, and British liberals should consider carefully before extolling its virtues.

The new 'modern' wing of the Irish establishment would probably be happy enough to adopt a British-type abortion law. British law allows abortion to be controlled by the medical profession. It denies women the right to abortion, and in doing so it underlines their primary role as mothers in the family home in a more subtle way than the Irish constitution.

Legal abortion in strictly controlled circumstances suits the British establishment far better than a total ban. It allows pregnancies to be terminated when they occur in what the authorities decide are unsuitable circumstances, without giving women the right to demand an abortion.

The 1967 Abortion Act was passed on the back of eugenic concerns about the number of working class children being born into 'illegitimate' circumstances. Today, similar worries stalk Irish society. Three quarters of children born to women under 24 are to unmarried mothers, and with the numbers of marriages falling, women are showing no inclination to 'legitimise' their offspring.

The National Economic and Social Council in Dublin has warned that single mothers 'as a significant sub-group of the population...are growing very rapidly'. Many powerful voices within the Southern Irish state would probably welcome a relaxation of restrictions on abortion, to help control this destabilising 'sub-group' at the bottom of society.

The political and social structures of the Republic of Ireland are deeply rooted in the past, and there are still influential interests standing in the path of any change. But even if the teenager at the centre of the recent brouhaha is to become the catalyst for reforming Irish abortion law, the question remains as to what should come next.

Fifty-four years ago a legal test case involving a 14-year old rape victim set a precedent in English law which became the first step on the way to the 1967 Abortion Act. Those concerned about the position of women in Ireland should consider carefully whether they want to take that same path to a situation where access to abortion is restricted by MPs and doctors, or to forge a new road to the abortion rights that women need.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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