Time for an abortion law to stop Irish women suffering
OPINION:The Government needs to introduce robust legislation that provides clarity for women facing health risks
When I argued a case challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), I told the story of my client Ms C, who had been battling cancer and had had no option but to travel to England to obtain an abortion when she became pregnant.
Ms C’s doctors had refused to provide even basic information about the risk that continuation of pregnancy posed to her life. The human rights court found this to be a clear violation of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. It demanded that Ireland reform its abortion laws. The case was a major victory for women’s health and rights.
But the victory exists only on paper and not in practice, as is strongly indicated by the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar.
According to the account of her husband, Praveen, as Ms Halappanavar’s health deteriorated they both begged her doctors for medically necessary treatment. Even after her doctors acknowledged there was no chance her foetus would survive, they allegedly refused to terminate the pregnancy as long as they could detect a foetal heartbeat. Ms Halappanavar slipped in to a coma and her tragic demise rapidly ensued.
Despite what abortion opponents and the State have argued, life-saving abortion procedures are unavailable in Ireland.
Two years ago the ECHR was particularly disturbed that Ms C, like Ms Halappanavar, had no procedures available to establish her qualification for lawful, life-saving abortion within Ireland.
The court said “this deficiency is not merely an oversight: since 1992, successive governments have ignored observations by the judiciary and political bodies that such legislation is urgent”.
Dismissing the State’s obfuscating com- mittee reports, the court said the Government had “done nothing to alleviate this situation and have failed utterly to produce any practical guidelines”.
Silence and stigma
Decades before Ms C’s case was heard in Strasbourg, the Supreme Court had held in the X case that women and girls must be allowed access to life-saving abortion. Now, 20 years later, while worldwide demonstrations and a human rights court ruling call again for action on Ireland’s abortion laws, women continue to suffer.
Why did Ms Halappanavar die while under medical care? Her husband was quoted as saying his wife’s doctors said it was because Ireland is “a Catholic country”. More than being a predominantly Catholic country, however, Ireland is the jewel in the crown of the anti-abortion movement. Anti-abortion advocates claim Ireland as their success story.
The rate of abortion among Irish women is similar to, and in some cases higher, than countries where abortion is legal. It’s just that Irish women don’t have abortions in Ireland – they travel abroad for legal abortion services.
This helps maintain the silence and stigma around abortion, as does labelling it a criminal activity. A doctor caught performing or assisting an abortion in Ireland can lose his or her medical licence and faces severe criminal penalties.