Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Savita was denied a choice over abortion, now women here are too

Praveen Halappanavar pictured with his wife Savita at their home in Galway
Praveen Halappanavar pictured with his wife Savita at their home in Galway

When two boys revealed to Sean Brady in 1975 that they'd suffered serious sexual assault by the predatory pervert Brendan Smyth, they were told on no account to breathe a word about it.

To make sure they'd keep their suffering secret, Brady made them swear to sing dumb about the matter for the rest of their lives.

At the time, Brady was a priest and a canon lawyer serving in the diocese of Kilmore. He is now Archbishop of Armagh and Cardinal of All Ireland.

In the village of Knock in Co Mayo last weekend, he refused to rule out excommunicating any Catholic TD who voted for a Bill to bring the Republic's law on abortion into line with the Irish constitution.

One of the boys who alerted Brady to Smyth's crimes, Brendan Boland, then 14, gave the future cardinal the names and addresses of five other children who were being sexually attacked by Smyth.

Apart from informing his bishop about the boys' revelations – and presumably about the oath he'd required them to make – Brady did nothing to stop the priest's crime-spree.

One of these victims continued to be violated by Smyth for another year. His sister continued to be sexually assaulted for another seven years. Four others were abused for 13 years.

The journalist who broke the story, Chris Moore, has estimated that, in the years after Brady had been told of Smyth's activities, his victims – in Ireland and the US, to which he had been transferred – may have been numbered in the hundreds. Smyth was jailed in 1994 – 19 years after Brady had been informed of his activities. In the aftermath of Moore's expose, Brady said: "These issues weren't fully understood at that time."

At Knock last Sunday, Brady declared: "We pray for courage – the kind of courage that is needed to look the truth in the eye and to call it as it is, without yielding to self-deception, or bowing to convenient compromise, scrupulously avoiding ambiguous language which cloaks the true horror of the situation and reduces its seriousness in public." The brazenness was breathtaking.

Brady was in Knock for a prayer-storm against the proposed abortion legislation. The Catholic Church is implacable in its defence of the unborn; not quite so dogmatic when it comes to standing up for children who have already been born.

A few days before, Deirdre Conroy had gone public about her own experience of Catholic rigidity in relation to abortion.

Ms Conroy had become pregnant with twins in 2002. The children were very much wanted.

But she was to receive the devastating news that one had died in her womb and the other suffered from an abnormality which meant that it would not be able to survive outside the womb.

She asked for a termination, but was given the same, stony answer as was to be received by Savita Halappanavar: this would be impermissible in a hospital in the Republic.

"I assumed there would be a system in our hospitals where there would be a sympathetic arrangement," Deirdre told RTE News.

But, instead, she recalled, she was left to "go home and sort it out" for herself. She travelled to the north and received a termination. "I found on our own island there was a place where compassion and sympathy and tolerance prevailed.

"If there can be that sort of tolerance on our island just across the border, I don't see why we don't have that here."

She wouldn't be accorded the same compassion, sympathy and tolerance now.

The latest set of guidelines on abortion in the north is currently out for 'consultation' – another phase in a long-running battle to provide women and doctors with clarity on the issue.

The first paragraph of the guidelines document from the Department of Health is certainly clear: "Intervention cannot have as its direct purpose the ending of the life of the unborn child." No mention of any exceptions.

In a letter to the Stormont health committee last October, the Attorney General, John Larkin, spelt it out: abortion on ground of foetal abnormality was "always illegal".

If Deirdre Conroy presented herself at a hospital in the north today, she would be told to go away and sort it out herself.

Whatever his concerns about the possibility of changed regulations in the south, Brady is doubtless well-satisfied that his own and his Church's views on abortion continue to hold sway in this jurisdiction. Alliance for Choice, the Family Planning Association and other campaigners for change take the opposite view: that, north or south, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, it was the wishes of Savita Halappanavar and Deirdre Conroy which should have prevailed.

That it's a woman's right to choose.

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