August 2013        

Father Marx, the X Case, abortion, and the “protection of life”

It rarely happens that a “code of law is the blunt, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of the domination of a class” (Engels to Conrad Schmidt, 1890).
     Father Paul Marx of St Michael, Minnesota, was an opponent of all forms of contraception. He founded “Human Life International” and established “pro-life” organisations in the ninety countries he visited. In the early 1970s he visited Ireland and toured schools with what he claimed was a foetus in a jar. (It was probably a doll.) It looked like a baby, and the idea was to frighten schoolchildren into opposing abortion. This sort of bullying and intimidation had the widespread support of the hierarchy at the time.
     The case of Roe v. Wade in America was the catalyst for the right wing in Ireland to seek an amendment to the Constitution in relation to abortion. The American Supreme Court essentially granted the right to abortion even though the right was not expressly mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. As a direct reaction, the Irish right wing decided that they needed to stop a similar development here by inserting an amendment in the Constitution of Ireland forbidding abortion. The eighth amendment to the Constitution was an attempt to rewrite the Roe v. Wade judgement.
     An important aspect of the American judgement had been a consideration of when the foetus could live outside the womb. Hence, in the Irish amendment the reference is to “the unborn,” so that the foetus would be protected regardless of viability. The amendment was an expression by a right-wing conservative Catholic bourgeoisie represented by lawyers, doctors and academics to impose their own morality on the working class and on society at large.
     The X Case arose in 1992 when a child was raped and subsequently became pregnant. Along with her parents, she decided to go to England for an abortion.
     Her parents contacted the Gardaí to see what evidence would be needed in order to help convict the rapist. The Gardaí contacted the director of public prosecutions; the DPP contacted the attorney-general; the attorney-general obtained an injunction against the victim of the crime and her parents to prevent them going to England for an abortion, using article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. Mr Justice Declan Costello in the High Court upheld the injunction and effectually ordered the child to have her rapist’s child.
     There was outrage at the blatant injustice and inhumanity of the decision. Schoolgirls walked out of their classes despite threats of expulsion from the same nuns who had welcomed Father Marx and his pickled “foetus.” There were widespread demonstrations.
     The state had failed to protect the “Kerry Babies” or Anne Lovett (the fifteen-year-old who died alone in childbirth in dreadful circumstances in 1984), and here it was prosecuting the victim of a crime.
     The political establishment was frightened by the disruption in society. The perception of Ireland abroad was of a country ruled by mediaeval monks.
     The child involved in the X Case was now suicidal at the thought of being forced to continue with the pregnancy. The Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision on grounds far wider than simply the issue of suicide: Mr Justice Séamus Egan, for example, pointed out that the words of article 40.3.3 stated that the mother had an equal right to life.
     In other words, the eighth amendment did not achieve the objective of those reactionaries who wrote it. It actually allowed abortion. The other effects it had were that every Government since the X Case has wanted to steer clear of the abortion issue, and the right-wing “pro-lifers” were regarded as discredited.
     Legislating for the X Case is to be the Labour Party’s achievement in government. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which has just passed into law, will be a measure of that party’s failure. Thousands of women travel abroad each year for legal abortions. The new act addresses one limited area of article 40.3.3; it fails to address cases such as that of Savita Halappanavar, who was a healthy young woman whose right to life the state failed to protect. Nor does it address the cases of foetal abnormality where the foetus cannot survive outside the womb.
     The Labour Party had the opportunity to draft legislation that embraced the whole of the X Case judgement; instead they decided to appease the right-wing “pro-life” movement.
     It is inevitable that another “hard case” will emerge, forcing bourgeois politicians to cringe and wring their hands, pleading innocence when some other poor woman or child suffers or dies over the failure to grasp this nettle.

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