Irish Abortion Quandary

February 21, 1992

No issue has forced the Irish Republic to examine the nature of its state as the crisis over the denied right of a 14-year-old rape victim to travel. Irish adherence to the Conference on Security and Cooperation and the European Community grants that right. It may be denied only to a criminal defendant which is how Ireland is treating the victim.

It obtained an injunction against travel, knowing she intended to have an abortion in Britain. The injunction, upheld in court, is on appeal. This crisis blew up on the new prime minister, Albert Reynolds. Justifying the action by his attorney general, Mr. Reynolds said a legal system cannot survive on "nods and winks." But that is exactly how the prohibition against abortion is enforced. An estimated 4,000 women fly to Britain each year for abortions. Everyone in Ireland knows of the practice, a safety valve allowing the constitutional ban, overwhelmingly endorsed by voters nine years ago, to be maintained with minimum discord.

The crime of this 14-year-old, raped by her best friend's father, is that her family is law-abiding. They reported the rape. After she spoke suicidally to a psychologist, the family told police of her intention and asked if they should obtain tissue as evidence for the prosecution. The attorney general of the nation went to court. The family was already in England but, under order, returned. Its very responsibility denies Mr. Reynolds the nods and winks he requires.

The Irish government holds that the constitution follows the citizen abroad and overrides the human right to travel guaranteed in international agreement. Would it equally forbid a woman from traveling to obtain a divorce, which is equally unconstitutional in the Irish Republic?

The anguish of President Mary Robinson -- a crusader for women's rights now officially aloof from controversy -- is poignant. This small country must weigh its tradition against its modernity, its Irishness against its Europeaness. And understand why the Protestant majority of Northern Ireland -- where abortion is also illegal and flight to England also practiced -- fiercely resists incorporation into the Republic. The cause of Irish unification, which President Robinson's stunning 1990 election advanced, is set back again. That damage is done. But for pity's sake, let the girl go. There is too much talk about waiting to amend the constitution. The attorney general should withdraw his case.

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