Ireland’s Shame

In 1992, as a result of being repeatedly raped, a 14 year old girl became pregnant. Her family reported the rape, and resulting pregnancy, and made the decision to travel to the UK so that the girl could have an abortion. Aware that there is a possible need, the family ask the Gardaí if DNA evidence from the foetus will be required, and the question was referred upwards to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and further again to the then Attorney General Harry Whelehan, who, as you might expect, immediately replied to the family to assuage their fears, and reassured them in this difficult time.

Except that this is Ireland, a “Catholic country”, and that’s not at all what Whelehan did. Instead, he demanded that they return to Ireland, without harming the foetus, because a 1983 constitutional amendment reaffirmed the illegality of abortion in Ireland, and sought to further prevent any possible change to allow abortion, by stating that “The State 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 to defend and vindicate that right.” An initial appeal to the High Court proved unsuccessful  because the judge in question ruled that the threat to the life of the unborn was “real and imminent” and the the constitution required the the life of the unborn be protected from this threat. The family appealed, their daughter suicidal at the prospect of having to carry the child to term, and eventually, Whelehan’s decision was overturned in the Supreme Court, with the judges recognising that “a woman had a right to an abortion under Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution if there was “a real and substantial risk” to her life.” The girl miscarried shortly after the judgement.

The X case was resolved in 1992, and since then, there has been a need for legislation to allow abortions to be performed if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. As yet, almost 20 years later, there is no legislation. Ignoring this need for legislation has led to further cases where women have been put in difficult situations, needing to travel outside the country, and finding themselves unable to receive advice regarding abortion. In all cases, the women needed follow-up medical care, and either did not attend due to uncertainty about the legalities of abortion, or were failed by medical staff who seemed to ingore the fact that they had had abortions.

Today, we learned about Savita Halappanavar, another woman who has been failed by the unclear abortion laws and lack of legislation regarding threats to the life and health of the mother. Her case goes beyond a need for travel, or the inaccessibility of information and follow-up medical care regarding abortion, because on October 28th, as a result of being denied a termination, Savita died.

Savita Halappanavar presented to University Hospital Galway on October 21st, when she was 17 weeks pregnant. She was suffering from back pain, and after examination, was found to be miscarrying. The doctors informed Savita, and her husband Praveen, that her cervix was dilated  that she was leaking amniotic fluid, and that the baby would not survive. The doctors also told them that the miscarriage would be over in a few hours. What followed was three days of severe pain, with Savita exposed to life threatening infection as her cervix remained dilated. After the first day, when it became clear that the miscarriage was not going to be over in a few hours, she asked for a termination. She was informed that they would not carry out the termination, because the foetal heartbeat was still present, and that “this is a Catholic country”.

Savita spent 2 more days in agony, and extremely susceptible to infection, before the foetal heartbeat finally stopped. Only at this point was the foetus removed, and although the procedure was successful  it was far too late for Savita. She died, a week after presenting at the hospital, of septicaemia which had been documented “ante-mortem”, i.e. before her death, and E.Coli (ESBL) infection.  Though Savita had pleaded with the doctors to help her, once it became clear they could not save the baby, her husband says she was repeatedly told that there was nothing they could do because the foetus’ heart was still beating. When told that it was the law, and that this was a Catholic country, Savita pointed out that she was neither Irish nor Catholic, but the doctors maintained that there was nothing they could do, and so, while Savita succumbed to infection, the doctors did nothing.

Earlier this year, Cardinal Seán Brady said that the Chruch would lobby the government if there was any attempt to legislate for abortion, and indeed, on the same days as Savita’s story appeared in The Irish Times, a letter from the Bishop of Killala, John Fleming, reminds us that ” for Catholics is that the life of the unborn can never be taken intentionally”, and that “Ireland, without abortion, is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother.” Fleming also pays lip service to that old chestnut that the law in Ireland wouldn’t prevent a mother getting the care she needed, reminding us that even though we should “Choose Life!”, that “Clearly, if the life of the mother is threatened, by illness or some other medical condition, the care provided by medical professionals will make sure that she receives all the medical care needed.”

Bishop Fleming needn’t worry. Rather than come down on any one side of the abortion debate, our elected officials have been avoiding the matter for over 20 years now, and seem determined to continue doing so. Referring to the impending publication of a report regarding Ireland’s abortion legislation, recently one minister said “I hope that report doesn’t come for 10 years, but it’s coming and we’re going to have to deal with it,” and for me, this neatly encapsulates how our elected officials feel about this issue. Rather than fighting for women’s rights, or attempting to finally resolve the decades long outstanding legislation, they hope that the report doesn’t come, so that they don’t have to deal with it. Rather than seeing the report as an opportunity to codify something which has been missing from our law for an embarrassingly long period of time, they see it as something that they are stuck with, that they must reluctantly deal with.

Abortion in Ireland isn’t a right, and it isn’t a privilege. It isn’t even a choice. It’s a political football to be kicked around at times like these, a hot potato that no party wants to be left holding. The cowardice of our elected officials in ignoring the 1992 X judgement, in hoping that the problem would simply go away if ignored for long enough, is something which should not be forgotten. The A, B, and C cases, the X case, and now Savita; all victims of our compassionate, humane, “Catholic” country.

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