The Blog

We Shouldn't Need Martyrs for Abortion Reform in Ireland

It is abhorrent that it should come to this. That we should need a martyr - Savita Halappanavar. Are the Irish people not smart enough that we might have heeded the warnings and stopped this tragedy before it happened?

This morning the news broke that Savita Halappanavar had died at Galway University Hospital, after being denied a necessary termination. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she presented to the hospital on 21 October, complaining of severe back pain. She was told that she was miscarrying the pregnancy and it would all be over within a few hours. It wasn't. She was in agony as she repeatedly asked that a medical termination be performed. Savita was advised that as there was still a foetal heartbeat doctors could not perform an abortion, as "this is a Catholic country." This went on for close to three days.

On Wednesday the 24th, this foetal heartbeat finally stopped. The contents of Savita's womb were evacuated. However she had been left with a dialated cervix since Sunday night and had predictably contracted an infection. Medical professionals at the hospital would have been aware that the risk of infection under such circumstances is similar to the risk of infection to an open head wound.

Savita was incredibly ill, suffering from septicaemia. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, went home to rest only to be called at 11pm that night, and informed that his wife's condition had deteriorated and she was sedated in intensive care.

Praveen would never speak to Savita again. In the early hours of Sunday morning, just under a week after she first arrived at the hospital, Savita died. She was laid to rest in Belgaum, India on 3 November.

How could this have happened? The Supreme Court ruling on the X case in 1992 established that a woman has the right to an abortion when continuing the pregnancy poses a threat to her life. If legislation had been created at any point in the 20 years since, it would surely grant a termination in this case - it is quite foreseeable that leaving a woman with a dialated cervix for this long would lead to infection, and that such infection could be life threatening. Furthermore, it was obvious to all involved that the foetus was dying. Even if we allow that the right to life of a 17-week-old foetus and a 31-year-old woman are equal, it is clear that in this case the woman's right is disregarded by forcing her to endure such suffering until the foetus dies naturally.

But legislation does not yet exist, despite a 2010 ruling that failing to legislate violates the European Convention on Human Rights. In this way medical professionals are asked to guess at what the 1992 ruling might and might not allow. It's unsurprising that these doctors erred on the side of conservatism.

Perversely, in taking measures to save Savita's life, her doctors would have risked legal and professional reprimand. In ultimately allowing her to die, whether wittingly or not, they have done right by the law as it stands. When in doubt, our legal system implicitly recommends, always favour the life of the foetus.

So why has the Irish government repeatedly refused to take action? Just this September, Taoiseach Enda Kenny told Time magazine that the abortion issue "is not of priority for government now." Since those who want (and can afford) to are free to travel to the UK to obtain an abortion, there is a feeling in this country that this isn't really a pressing problem - that no woman's life is really in danger.

Without the threat of dead women on their consciences, the majority of Irish politicians have been content to take the cowardly route of inaction. By ignoring the problem they lose their dignity, but rarely lose votes. Threatening to withhold a vote from one politician or party is only really powerful if that vote can go to another viable candidate. As our main three parties, Fine Gael, Labour and Finna Fail, have proved to be almost equally averse to meaningful action, they have little reason to fear the pro-choice lobby. By doing the right thing, they would lose the support of the substantial pro-life contingent, who always have someone more conservative to back.

Now we have our dead woman. This tragedy is the last straw and we will bombard this government with images of the woman whose death they presided over until they do what should have been done 20 years ago.

It is abhorrent that it should come to this. That we should need a martyr. Are the Irish people not smart enough that we might have heeded the warnings and stopped this tragedy before it happened? Are the Irish people so discompassionate that we needed a 'virtuous' claim to abortion - a professional, married woman who planned her pregnancy and suffered a miscarriage outside of her control - before taking this right seriously?

Just last night, an expert group established to develop a recommended course of action in response to the European Court's 2010 ruling delivered its report to the Department of Health, approximately four months late. It is poignant that this report was due to be published at the same time as Savita would have learned of her pregnancy, with all the attendant excitement of beginning her family in Galway. Little did she know how badly we would let her and that burgeoning family down.