Oireachtas should amend Bill’s criminalisation of women and doctors
Hospital staff were intimidated by 1861 Act
Savita Halappanavar: Hospital staff were influenced by the ‘chill factor’ of the 1861 Act.
On the night before the general scheme of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill was published, two women, whose pregnancies involved a fatal foetal abnormality, appeared on Prime Time on RTÉ to describe their lonely and, at times, harrowing journey to the UK to have an abortion. The distress they experienced at first, with the appalling news of the impending inevitable loss of an expected baby, was cruelly compounded by the bewildering information that followed: they could not have an abortion in Ireland.
The day after they bravely told their story, “head 19” of the Bill said that an abortion in their circumstances, if it were carried out here rather than elsewhere, would be punishable by up to 14 years in prison “due to the gravity of the crime”. It was a shock to many that some anonymous drafter of legislation thought that what these women had to go through was the equivalent of a “grave crime”. I have not met anyone yet who believes that it is.
In 1992, a majority voted that there should be no impediment to travel for an abortion, a decision incompatible with the idea that such travel would constitute a “grave crime”. At the Oireachtas hearings, I put the question of who exactly supported the idea of imprisoning women or children for having an abortion, but not one Senator or TD present volunteered any support for a prison sentence. As someone recently asked: with sentences of 18 months or two years being handed down for raping a child, could a child who is raped and takes abortion pills at home possibly end up spending longer in prison than her abuser?
1861 ‘chill factor’
So this criminalising of women and children is certainly offensive and absurd, but it is also dangerous. Savita Halappanavar’s death last year was due to being repeatedly refused an abortion due to the “chill factor” of the 1861 Act’s threat of a prison sentence. “Legal clarity” was supposed to help remove the chill factor, not reinforce it, as the threat of 14 years in prison will certainly do. Also, in the case of medical abortions, women should obviously be able to properly consult with a doctor before they take medication but they should certainly be able to tell their doctor what medication they have taken in an emergency. There is very real concern that this information will continue to be withheld by women through fear because of the threat of imprisonment.
The only possible justification for criminalisation is that it would in some way reduce abortions. However, the research does not support this. A study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2012 reports that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. The region with the highest rate, 32 abortions per thousand women aged 15-44, is Latin America, where 95 per cent of abortions are illegal. The region with the lowest, 12 abortions per thousand, is western Europe, where abortion is available on broad grounds and almost all are safe and legal.