Time for Government to stop talking and legislate
OPINION:The news of Savita Halappanavar’s death in appalling circumstances is a wake-up call for legislators
No more inaction. For 20 years now the lives of Irish women have been put at risk by the failure of successive governments to legislate for the X case.
The news this week of Savita Halappanavar’s death in appalling circumstances at University Hospital Galway is a wake-up call for legislators. The heartbreaking account of her final days, as expressed in the dignified words of her husband, has generated immense grief and outrage nationally. It has also generated a strong sense of shame. It is utterly shameful that our State could have failed a young woman and her family so tragically.
The saddest and most shameful thing of all is that deaths of pregnant women in circumstances such as these were predictable once the 1983 amendment to the Constitution was passed, equating the right to life of the “unborn” with that of the pregnant woman.
That year, Sheila Hodgers died in Drogheda having been refused necessary medical treatment because of her pregnancy. But it took the X case, 20 years ago, to make people see the real implications of the 1983 amendment – that it could mean the refusal of life-saving medical treatment to pregnant women or girls in order to preserve the life of the foetus. The Supreme Court ruled then that because X was suicidal the pregnancy threatened her life, and her right to life should prevail.
The test means abortion is lawful where a woman faces a “real and substantial risk to her life” which can be avoided only by termination of her pregnancy – but no guidance is given to doctors on how to assess “real and substantial risk”.
In his X case judgment, the late Mr Justice Niall McCarthy asked a series of questions that have particularly poignant resonance this week.
Pointing out that the people, in passing the referendum in 1983, were entitled to believe legislation would be introduced to regulate how the right to life of the unborn and that of the pregnant woman could be reconciled, he said: “The failure by the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable. What are pregnant women to do? . . . What are the medical profession to do? They have no guidelines save what may be gleaned from the judgments in this case . . . The amendment . . . remains bare of legislative direction.”
Twenty years on, the amendment remains bare of legislative direction. For those 20 years the debate has been dominated by a group of highly vocal lobbyists, backed by the Catholic Church – the so-called pro-life campaign.
Their intimidatory tactics – currently targeted at Fine Gael deputies and Senators – have scared politicians away from legislating. Over the past few days I have listened in disbelief to their smooth spokespeople arguing that what we really need is yet another referendum to overturn the X case. They also insist abortion is never necessary to save women’s lives – and when it is, they don’t call it abortion.