Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Larkin: the case for ... and the case against

The Attorney General is stridently opposed to abortion. So is he the right man to lead a probe which demands a detached approach, wonders Malachi O'Doherty

First let's try a case for the defence. The Attorney General, John Larkin, is accused by his political critics of crass insensitivity in the consideration of abortion. Further, they say, this insensitivity betrays a predisposition to the view that abortion is wrong and that those who endorse it are heartless and cruel.

And that being the nature of his publicly understood position, they say it ill behoves him to represent the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly in its investigation into the Marie Stopes clinic which has opened in Belfast to provide abortion among other services.

Well the evidence of insensitivity is allegedly contained in his phrasing of a question to a panel on the Sunday Sequence programme prior to his taking up his position as Attorney General.

His question was addressed to Dawn Purvis, who has also changed jobs since the programme was recorded. She is now the director of the Marie Stopes clinic. Mr Larkin asked: "Help me out Dawn, tell me the logical distinction between destroying the unborn child in the womb, seconds before birth and putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it's born."

In terms of that quote it may be argued that it is a reasonable question, if harshly phrased. The law in Great Britain allows termination of a pregnancy up to the date at which the foetus is likely to be able to survive outside the womb.

To kill a foetus, "seconds before birth" would usually be a criminal act. To suggest that it would be little different from ending the life of a child just seconds after birth seems logical.

It is also acknowledged that Mr Larkin made his comments as a private citizen at a time when he did not know he would one day be the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

But in making termination of a pregnancy analogous to assassination, Mr Larkin appears to have denied all sympathy to the mother who may have felt she had to decide, under extreme pressure of circumstances, to end a pregnancy.

Further, there is another quote cited from the programme which some argue shows that same level of insensitivity in considering the plight of a woman faced with giving birth to a severely disabled child.

"If one is prepared to contemplate the destruction of a highly disabled, unborn child in the womb, one should also be prepared to contemplate, I think, putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it's born."

This is a horrific statement. However logical the analogy between killing a baby seconds before or seconds after removal from the womb, this statement goes beyond that reasoning. And it is not, this time a question. Mr Larkin made his own perception of the reality plain. And this amounts to pointing an accusing finger at every woman in the country who has had a termination of a foetus that might have grown into a severely disabled child. There are some such women who have had such terminations legally in Northern Ireland on the grounds that their own mental health might be impaired in the long term if the pregnancy continued.

What Mr Larkin has said to those women is that they should accept a parity between the termination they sought and a cold blooded act of murder.

He is effectively accusing them of cruelty, if they understand the horror of their decision, or of cowardice if they don't see it as starkly as he does himself.

Still, one might say something in defence of those words. Mr Larkin clearly wanted people who endorse termination to have the fullest possible clarity in their minds about the nature of the act of killing a developed foetus.

As a lawyer who is used to making his case with verve and colour, in an adversarial context, it has been his job to crush alternative arguments rather than to accommodate them.

Similarly, when he moved against the Human Rights Commission to urge that adoption by gay couples should not be allowed, he went as far as to say the HRC had 'cardinal errors' in its case and even in its own role in the litigation.

Yet this week Justice Treacy ruled for gay adoption, and it in no ways stands to Mr Larkin's discredit that he called it wrong, or that in calling it wrong he applied such vigour. That's what lawyers do.

The problem with the Sunday Sequence panel is that it was not a court of law.

The argument was not staged for legal bigwigs who might be hardened to bloody images or to a jury which might be swayed by shock and simplification.

Mr Larkin was not a mouth for hire on one side of an argument; he was himself, airing his own opinion for an audience that included thousands of mothers, many of whom might have disabled children, and some of whom may have had terminations of pregnancies to avoid giving birth to disabled children and who - whatever you think of abortion - have surely suffered enough.

The defence of Mr Larkin by those who say he should be allowed to continue with his plan to represent the Justice Committee against the Marie Stopes clinic is that these were his personal views and that he has a clear sense, as a legal professional, of the boundary between his personal views and his professional responsibility.

It is argued that if he is prone to cutting up rough like a brash barrister in a radio studio, speaking personally, is he really able to separate his private passions from his forensic arguments in a court of law?

This is the case against him. If the Justice Committee needs a lawyer it has one of its own members, Alban Maginness. But does it need a lawyer?

Are committees usually thought to be inadequate to the task of probing the issues before them without learned assistance? If that is the case, perhaps the problem is in the political system.

Perhaps we should have teams of lawyers probing educational selection, the closure of residential homes, the Causeway golf course.

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