Abortion law: what comes next?
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill has passed through the Oireachtas, but the scope of the legislation is likely to be challenged
And so it will almost certainly be that another woman’s private tragedy will have to be played out publicly before the “great cruelties” of this legislation will even begin to be addressed.
Although it is impossible to predict where or when such cases might come to light – the most recent story, published in this newspaper on Monday, concerned the death, in January 2012, of a woman in London following an abortion – people who work in the area of women’s health point to two areas from where the next case may could emerge.
Legally it is almost inevitable that a woman with a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality will challenge the legislation in the courts. Medically, and more worryingly, it is thought to be but a matter of time before a woman attempting a home, or so-called back-room abortion, gets into serious difficulty.
Given the criminal sanctions she may face if prosecuted, where will she go for help?
Home-abortion kits containing the drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol, can be purchased online for between €50 and €150; this is far cheaper than travelling to a clinic abroad. Taken under medical supervision, these drugs are perfectly safe but the woman, who could be very young, must be certain of her dates, she must take them correctly (several have to be taken at specific intervals) and she must be certain that what she is taking is what she is told she is taking.
She will then have to endure prolonged and sometimes extreme blood loss and a lot of pain as she “labours” to expel the pregnancy.
According to the Irish Medicines Board, since the beginning of the year 259 tablets have been seized by Customs, compared with 487 last year and 635 in 2011. However, thousands more are likely to be getting past Customs either because those selling them are changing the packaging regularly to avoid detection or because the women are having them sent to contacts in Northern Ireland.
Either way, the Irish Family Planning Association is seeing an increasing number of women calling in difficulty, having taken the drugs at home alone. In three cases earlier this year the abortions had not completed at home and required professional medical attention.
Alison Begas, the chief executive of the Well Woman Centres, is particularly worried about what could happen. “I have a great fear that some woman or girl will be at home, haemorrhaging badly too afraid to get help.”
She hopes the atmosphere has changed sufficiently over the past year so that a woman dealing with a crisis pregnancy would know public opinion was sympathetic to her, and that should she get into difficulty at home she should get help. But, she acknowledges, it would take just one conscientiously objecting midwife or obstetrician to report a woman to the authorities to set a prosecution in motion.