The High Horse

Daire O'Criodain

At the end of January, The Irish Times’ political correspondent, Jennifer Bray, reviewed the first four weeks of Ireland’s new abortion regime.Along the way, she addressed the case raised in the Dáil by two TDs of a woman “who they said had been diagnosed with a case of fatal foetal abnormality, and who was denied an abortion despite this fact”.

According to reports earlier in January, the couple involved were initially told that their foetus had a “fatal” anomaly. However, a letter from the hospital a week later described the circumstance as a “complex foetal anomaly”, but not “a condition…. likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before or within 28 days of birth, as per the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.” 

So, you might say, no disagreement on the existence of a potentially fatal abnormality, possibly none either on the prospective post-birth life of the foetus. Likewise. possibly not even a disagreement on the need for a limit on the projected life beyond birth beyond which abnormality could not be invoked as grounds for abortion.

But certainly a mismatch between the couple’s expectation of entitlement to access to abortion in her circumstances and the hospital’s refusal to grant her one.

In her review, Ms Bray reported People Before Profit TD, Brid Smith, as saying that “the woman had told her that ‘this is not what I voted for’.”

Why did the newspaper include this last specific point in the review?

I am not querying its accuracy. I am sure Ms Smith reported the woman’s words fairly and, though the genesis of this pregnancy occurred months after the referendum, I can accept that, in voting (as we must assume she did) to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the woman herself expected that the rules around invoking foetal abnormality as grounds for abortion would be more flexible than they actually are.

Accordingly, I totally understand why the woman might feel surprised and aggrieved that the hospital did not provide her with one.

But I do query why the journalist thought her readers should be made aware of this woman’s thought process as a voter, as reported by a TD? Is it significant in itself, “evidence” of something more broadly significant or just vague vox pop?

One potential justification for reporting her view might be that her voice deserves special consideration in assessing what the outcome of the referendum “meant”, because she was directly and adversely affected by the legislation enacted pursuant to the referendum, even though her pregnancy post-dates that event.

That might be the case if the translation of the referendum outcome into law had been unfair to her, rather than just inconvenient for her. It was certainly well signalled that fatal foetal abnormality would be a ground for abortion but it would not have been reasonable to expect no limit to projected post-birth life beyond which this ground could not be invoked. If 28 days is not indisputably right, it is not obviously wrong either.

A second potential dimension of significance attaching to her voting intentions could be to support a claim that including the 28-day limit in the legislation might somehow have thwarted, misrepresented or undermined the “will of the people”. In truth, though, all we know for sure about the will of the people is that a significant majority voted to repeal the amendment. Everything beyond that is “pure” speculation. We have no way of knowing the precise mix of motivations, considerations and priorities in the minds of the voters who made up either the majority or the minority.

Drawing wider conclusions about voters generally from an individual’s voting mindset before our abortion referendum is no more valid or valuable than the avalanche of partisan commentary across the water purporting to tell us what voters really meant when they placed their “X” in the Leave box in the Brexit referendum.


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