Why Ireland’s new abortion law is mad

It is not a step forward for women's liberation to provide abortions for women who claim to be suicidal.

Jason Walsh

Topics Politics

Two decades after a Supreme Court judgement ordering it, the Irish government has finally announced it will legislate for abortion where a woman’s life is at risk, including by threat of suicide. Welcomed by pro-choice activists, the as-yet-unseen legislation falls far short of abortion on demand – not that you’d know that from the response of anti-abortion groups.

Opponents have alighted on the suicide clause as proof that an abortion free-for-all is on the way. Women will lie, feigning ‘suicide ideation’ in order to obtain abortions, we are told. Evoking the words of the late Pope John Paul II, Bishop of Kilmore Leo O’Reilly warned of a ‘culture of death’. Government minister Lucinda Creighton, meanwhile, has said she will quit the conservative Fine Gael party if the legislation goes ‘too far’. Fellow minister and medical doctor Leo Varadkar said suicide ideation would create a difficulty for Fine Gael backbenchers.

Feminist campaigners have responded with anger, saying such claims are an offence to women. Maybe so, but the fact is that in desperate situations people will, of course, lie in order to get what they want. In Ireland, however, few women are likely to lie about being suicidal in order to obtain an abortion, given the less personally costly alternative of doing what a reported 4,000 women do every year: travelling to England to get an abortion, where they must only demean themselves by claiming to be mentally fragile, rather than actually suicidal.

Rather than ask whether or not women will lie about their mental health in order to procure abortions, a better question to ask is: is it wise to tell the state you are suicidal?

There is no faster way to lose your rights than to declare yourself mentally incompetent, which is, in effect, what admitting to being suicidal amounts to. Ireland’s Criminal Law (Suicide) Act of 1993 decriminalised suicide, but that doesn’t mean the state takes no interest in those who decide to try to kill themselves. The Mental Health Act 2001 allows for individuals to be committed, often referred to as ‘sectioned’, if they are declared to have a ‘mental disorder’, determined to mean ‘there is a serious likelihood of the person concerned causing immediate and serious harm to himself or herself or to other persons’. Despite saying that ‘due regard shall be given to the need to respect the right of the person to dignity, bodily integrity, privacy and autonomy’, the Act allows judges and psychiatrists to make decisions in the ‘best interests’ of a person suffering from ‘mental illness, severe dementia or significant intellectual disability’. Despite all the fine words, autonomy is the last thing afforded to the mentally ill.

Assuming the state does not sequester women who declare themselves suicidal – though it did just that in the so-called ‘X’ case of 1992, in order to stop a suicidal 14-year-old girl from procuring an abortion, the proximate cause of the proposed legislation – it is still a dangerous thing to admit. Even at the most prosaic level, once you’ve declared yourself suicidal, good luck getting life assurance and, therefore, a mortgage. There are other potential pitfalls, too. Fancy a career in politics? A high-flying business career? It’s not hard to imagine a threat to commit suicide coming out and scuppering such plans. Going through a messy divorce and custody battle? A history of suicide threats won’t do you any favours.

The whole question hinges on suicide ideation: just how suicidal does one have to be, and by who’s say-so? A doctor? Two doctors? A consultant psychiatrist? A judge? No one really knows what suicide ideation means for sure. After all, it runs the gamut from a petulant response to having a bad day through to feeling a constant desire to kill oneself, up to and including making specific plans and preparations to do so.

Worst of all, though, is that even if none of the above prove to be real problems — perhaps the insurance industry and courts will recognise a legal fiction when they see one — it is still an insult to women’s dignity to have to declare themselves mentally ill.

Politicians and commentators regularly trumpet the need to get rid of the stigma around mental illness. It sounds good; after all, who among us wants to harm people who are already suffering? The problem is, for better or worse, stigmas build up for reasons.

There is already no significant stigma attached to minor forms of mental illness, to the point where depression is rapidly becoming a meaningless word synonymous with unhappiness. Presumably this is the source of anti-abortionists’ claims that the proposed legislation will open the door to abortion on demand. Such arguments are flawed. While people frequently claim to be depressed, and conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are virtually valorised, severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and major depression, are life-threatening conditions that are universally considered to require medical attention. As a result, claiming to be on the verge of suicide in order to obtain an abortion would be foolhardy to say the least.

Despite the hue and cry about the ‘culture of death’, anti-abortion activists needn’t worry. Tell the state you’re suicidal? You’d have to be out of your mind.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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Topics Politics


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