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Ireland: A Case of Blind Justice

5 minute read
Michael S. Serrill

It is a classic case of compassion versus the law. And so far, in an abortion controversy that has rocked Ireland and outraged much of Europe, the law has the upper hand. The controversy involves a 14-year-old girl who was allegedly raped by her best friend’s father. Last week a high-court judge barred the teenager from traveling to Britain to get an abortion, even though the victim, now 12 weeks pregnant, has declared that she would rather kill herself than have the child.

The decision, which is being appealed to the country’s Supreme Court, sparked protests across Ireland and Britain. Hundreds of demonstrators marched in Dublin and London, carrying placards reading RAPISTS-1, WOMEN-0 and IRELAND DEFENDS MEN’S RIGHT TO PROCREATE BY RAPE. Human-rights advocates declared that the ruling violated a European Community law allowing citizens to travel to another E.C. nation to obtain legally available services such as abortion. Roman Catholic Ireland is alone among the 12 E.C. members in imposing a total ban on abortion.

Judge Declan Costello, in a lengthy ruling, argued that the E.C. stricture did not apply to moral questions like abortion. He said he had no choice but to follow the law, though it might be “very painful, distressing and tragic for the girl and her family.” The judge labeled the perpetrator, who had allegedly molested the girl for two years before raping her in December, as “depraved and evil,” adding that the traumatized victim “wanted to kill herself by throwing herself down the stairs.”

Outrage over the case has been intensified by the fact that the alleged culprit has not been arrested, reportedly because the only evidence police have is the word of the victim. Ironically, it was in an effort to help the police gain more evidence that the girl’s parents put themselves at odds with the state. After arranging to travel to London for an abortion, the parents asked police whether a tissue sample from the fetus could be used as a “genetic fingerprint” that would positively identify the rapist. The inquiry made its way to Attorney General Harry Whelehan, who judged himself duty-bound to stop the family from breaking Irish law.

Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since the 1860s. When pressure to moderate the law began rising in the 1970s and early ’80s, the Catholic Church and antiabortion activists pushed the government to hold a 1983 referendum incorporating the ban into the constitution. After a bitter campaign, the pro- lifers won the vote by a two-thirds majority. The resulting constitutional amendment obliges the government “to respect . . . defend and vindicate” the right to life of the unborn. No exceptions are allowed except in some cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

In addition to banning abortions, the government and courts have forbidden pregnancy-counseling services to give abortion advice, have tried to stop Irish student unions from distributing information on abortion, and have even forced libraries to remove books giving the names and addresses of foreign abortion clinics.

Until now, however, the government has done nothing to prevent women from crossing the Irish Sea to obtain legal abortions in Britain. At least 4,000 travel to London each year to terminate pregnancies; an additional 2,000 arrive from Northern Ireland, where abortion laws are less liberal than in the rest of Britain. “Now they are afraid they will be reported to the police,” said Rita Burtenshaw, director of the Dublin Well Woman Center, a pregnancy- counseli ng service in Dublin. “We have young women calling in to say they are too scared to tell anyone, including their parents. This is frighteningly divisive.”

The court decision hurled the new Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, into a raucous political crisis less than a week after he replaced Charles Haughey, who was forced to resign over allegations about his part in a 10-year-old telephone-tapping scandal. Reynolds held a series of meetings with leaders of his ruling Fianna Fail Party, but could reach no consensus on what course to take. Yet the Prime Minister seemed to rule out any help for the rape victim. Said he: “I do not believe that the people of this country want, or deserve, a situation of nods and winks in the application of the law.”

President Mary Robinson, a figurehead who by tradition avoids comments on political affairs, said she sympathized with the “hurt, bewilderment and helplessness” felt by women throughout the country concerning the case and called abortion a “problem we have to resolve.”

Activists seeking to reform rules on abortion could not agree more. “Victims of rape now face a double ordeal, which puts the credibility of + Irish law in doubt,” said Jon O’Brien of the Irish Family Planning Association. “Abortion is a reality for Irish women, even if the constitution should say differently.” For now, the constitution does say differently, and no political efforts to change it can lessen the injustice done, in the name of the law, to an innocent teenage girl.

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