The politics of abortion – Lisa Smyth on the recent European Court of Human Rights’ Ruling

5 Jan

Does the ECHR judgement in the case of A, B and C versus Ireland promise to re-ignite the divisive abortion politics of the 1980s and early 1990s? Rather than tapping into cultural anxieties concerning the moral dimensions of nationhood, this latest episode in the long-running controversy seems instead to illustrate the downgraded status of the issue. That the politics of abortion is now being played out in the circumscribed field of European human rights law rather than in the wider political culture is telling. The shift from widespread moral to detailed legal argument signals the changed significance of this issue, once imagined to capture the essence of Irishness in the face of a history of colonisation and an imagined future of increasing European liberalisation.

Events since the X case in 1992 have underlined the ways in which, far from protecting some putative national identity from foreign encroachment, the abortion regime established in 1983 has instead provoked expressions of unease, discomfort and shame. It has also exposed the country to international scrutiny and criticism, as the implications of the constitutional provision have taken shape. Against this unedifying history, it would seem that the question of banning all access to abortion no longer has the purchase on the popular imagination that it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The promise that a ban on abortion then seemed to offer, namely a way of securing the nation’s borders in moral/social, if not economic terms, has not been fulfilled. Instead, the succession of cases dealing with girls and women in deep distress, carrying pregnancies that they sought to end for a variety of reasons, has drawn public attention to the complex range of circumstances in which women and girls might want or need to bring a pregnancy to an end. This has happened in ways which have brought shame and humiliation not only to those women and girls caught in the legal quagmire, but also to the ‘pro-life’ nation itself. How can a nation claim to be ‘pro-life’ when women and girls living within its borders can be forced to remain pregnant in situations where their lives, health and long-term well-being might be at risk? This may explain why, in comparison to the pre-X era, the claim to ‘pro-life’ nationhood is now rarely made. Indeed, public responses to the 2007 ‘D’ case clearly illustrated the ambiguity associated with the abortion ban, as public talk shifted to designating the nation as pragmatically compassionate, rather than as simply and absolutely ‘pro-life’.

The sleight of hand which has allowed women to exercise their right to obtain an abortion abroad, but not at home, even under the circumstances deemed constitutional in 1992, bridges the ever-widening gap between an assertion of moral unity on this issue, and an evident unease with the implications of the ban for women in crisis. The contradictions evident in the state’s unwillingness to enforce the X case decision are stark, and the judgement in A, B and C versus Ireland promises to at least reduce the calamitous effects of this long standing situation. The ruling that the state must develop interpretive guidelines, which clearly set out the circumstances and procedures for the provision of legal abortions within the state, is very welcome. Hopefully this will bring to an end the bizarre circumstances such as those of the ‘C’ case (1997), where the state financially supported and accompanied C, a minor in its care, to travel to Britain to end a pregnancy, in circumstances which should have allowed her to do so in Ireland, under the terms established in the X case. On the other hand, this most recent ECHR ruling has nothing to offer those who find themselves in circumstances similar to those of A or B, condemned to bear the heavy burden of a contested national moral culture through their pregnancy crises. The existence of a right to travel to obtain an abortion abroad can be small comfort to those finding themselves pregnant without the health or economic resources to have any real choice about their situation.

The demotion of abortion over the past 18 years from a defining national issue to an ambiguous and somewhat shameful legal-political situation which politicians would prefer to avoid, has taken place alongside the roller-coaster ride of the country’s economic success and then total collapse. This parallel scenario has re-ignited questions about Ireland’s ability to establish and sustain a viable and independent economy. The borders of the nation-state are indeed deeply insecure, and the country’s severe debt crisis may perhaps result in a return to the politics of the 1980s, where efforts to claim entitlement to self-government seek to avoid the question of economic dependency and turn instead to claims to cultural distinctiveness. It is when such claims require women and girls to bear the severe burdens of that distinctiveness through enforced pregnancy and/or enforced migration that the cultural politics of nationhood takes on a particularly oppressive character.

Dr Lisa Smyth is a lecturer in Sociology in this School – she is  the author of Abortion and Nation: The Politics of Reproduction in Contemporary Ireland – published by Ashgate.

This post originally appeared in the Human Rights in Ireland Blog


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