Brian Walsh knows his political career could come to a premature end over his stance on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, yet he is adamant he is doing “what I believe is right, ahead of political gain”.
The Fine Gael Galway West TD dramatically broke ranks with the party leadership last weekend by coming out publicly against the proposed abortion legislation, even before it was discussed at Cabinet and the wording agreed on Tuesday night.
“It was very obvious from what was being said by ministers that the Bill would legislate for X in its entirety,” Dep Walsh told the Galway Advertiser. “I reacted to questions put to me in the knowledge that the legislation would include the suicide aspect which I have a problem with.”
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill will give legislative effect to the 1992 X-Case ruling provided it is passed into law in June.
The assessment for an occasion when there is a risk to a woman’s life during pregnancy will involve a panel of three doctors - two psychiatrists, one obstetrician - who must agree unanimously. The decision can be appealed but only if a woman is refused a termination.
The appeal will involve a review by a further three doctors, who must also agree unanimously.
The Bill does not permit the establishment of any stand-alone clinic or facility providing abortion service outside public or voluntary hospitals.
In some respects, Dep Walsh’s stance reflects the divisions across the State over the issue of abortion, as he is not opposed to the provision of abortion services for Irish women in a number of circumstances, only to the inclusion of suicide ideation as a reason to grant an abortion.
‘I am not opposed to abortion in all circumstances’
“Where it is appropriate to save a mother’s life, in terms of a life threatening illness, I have no problem with the termination of a pregnancy being allowed, and I want to be very clear on that,” he says. “I am not opposed to abortion in all circumstances.
“I welcome the fact that this Bill gives clarity to the medical profession as there was a need for that. I do not want to see another Savita Halappanavar-like case arise.”
Regarding the threat of suicide as providing grounds for the termination of a pregnancy, the Galway West TD argues that medical evidence since the X Case judgment calls into question that judgment’s wisdom.
“The X Case judgement was flawed in that it was based on the false premise that abortion is an appropriate treatment for someone who has suicidal ideation,” he says. “The Supreme Court Judgment did not listen to the available medical evidence at the time so its judgment is flawed in that respect.”
Dep Walsh said the Oireachtas hearings on the issue, and the presentations made by medics and psychiatrists, have convinced him suicidal ideation should not be included in the Bill.
“They argued very strongly that termination is not an appropriate way to treat a mental health issue,” he says. “You don’t treat mental health problems with surgical procedures. That is bad legislation and entirely inappropriate.”
However, it is understood the Bill’s test for a permissible abortion on suicide grounds will be much stricter than for a physical medical emergency or a potentially fatal disease.
Essentially, an abortion would be allowed where no other option was left to prevent suicide. This implies a woman contemplating suicide would be given the appropriate care and psychological treatment needed and only if all such avenues failed, would an abortion then be granted. In short, it is a last resort method.
Dep Walsh though, said much greater clarity is needed on this issue.
“What would those other avenues be?” he asks. “These are not spelled out and it still comes back to the idea of treating suicide ideation with abortion. However we have until June before the vote takes place on this and I and others will be seeking to bring amendments and changes to the issues we are concerned about.”
Dep Walsh admits part of his opposition stems from a concern that suicidal ideation could become a “stepping stone to abortion on demand”.
“Sinn Féin, Clare Daly, and others are enthusiastically supporting this legislation even though it falls short of their demands,” he says. “I disagree with the methods used on the two Labour TDs, but their view that a liberal régime could be in place by the next government is not something I think the Irish people want. I cannot vote for something which would facilitate that.”
Dep Walsh is now calling for the question of suicidal ideation to be put to the people in a referendum. However there have been two referenda on abortion, in 1992 and 2002, and on both occasions the public voted in to uphold the X Case verdict. As such the question is settled and the people have spoken.
“The question should be put again in light of the new medical evidence,” he says. “Also, the Dáil is a male dominated institution and I do not think it appropriate for a male dominated institution to decide on an issue of women’s health. This is something that should be decided by the people and if they decree that suicide should be included, I will accept that.”
In taking his stance on the Bill, Dep Walsh has set himself against the wishes of the party leadership and is now likely to lose the party whip. He is under no illusions as to what this may mean.
“This has been a difficult choice for me,” he says. “I have an extremely good relationship with Enda Kenny on a personal and professional level, but I know it could herald the end of my involvement in the Fine Gael parliamentary party and my political career, but this is a decision I have made in spite of the political consequences, but I have to do what I believe is right, ahead of political gain.”
Dep Walsh estimates that there are between 25 and 30 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party who have concerns over the Bill, but that only a smal number may actually vote against the Government on the issue.
“There is a division of opinion and some may lose the whip,” he says. “But whether it is permanent or temporary is hard to say at the moment.”