Irish rights and wrongs

March 16, 1992

Its Supreme Court has insisted that the Irish Republic is more Irish than European and that its laws pursue its citizens abroad.

This is a victory for all who cherish the uniqueness of Irish life, oppose homogenization and modernization, and who cling to deeply felt values. But it can only disappoint those who had hoped the republic was now a modern, secular state to which the six counties of Northern Ireland would eventually adhere, or who have wanted to believe that the Protestant majority up there is wrong-headed for resisting such a future.

The Supreme Court made the right decision on Feb. 26, by 4 to 1, to allow a 14-year-old pregnant girl, allegedly a rape victim with suicidal thoughts, to obtain an abortion legally in England. But in their opinions March 5, the justices insisted they did so for the wrong reason. They gave permission, rather than deny that permission was needed. They decided she should have the abortion, rather than say the decision was not theirs to make except as it pertained to Irish soil.

The 54-page opinion by Chief Justice Thomas A. Finlay will not please anti-abortionists in Ireland. It seems to call for modifications in interpretation of the 1983 amendment to the constitution, which "acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws defend and vindicate that right." Now for the first time, abortion might be legally practiced in Ireland whenever a threat to the life of the mother might be claimed, including at her own hand.

No one questions the right of the Irish people to put this definition of life into their constitution, as they did by a 2-to-1 vote in 1983. But Ireland adheres to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which upholds the right to travel. And Ireland belongs to the European Community, which guarantees unfettered travel by its citizens to all member countries. Yet Chief Justice Finlay said the case did not turn on that and, if it had, he would have ruled it secondary to the right of the fetus to survive.

The court let the case turn on the credibility of the girl's suicide threat. On that narrow ground, the dissenting Justice Anthony Heberman was more persuasive in voting to deny her travel because of "a remarkable paucity of evidence."

Divorce is also forbidden by the Irish constitution. Will the state be obliged to seize the passport of anyone suspected of contemplating it? This is a setback for Irish unity. The justices did the right thing. If only they had not said why.

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