When is an abortion not an abortion?
COMMENT:Savita and Praveen Halappanavar walked unknowingly into Ireland’s grey zone of hidden realities, unspoken truths and word games
On Monday, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore greeted Ireland’s election to the United Nations Human Rights Council as a “major endorsement” of the country, a sign that its battered reputation had been restored in the eyes of the world. “This is a great day for Ireland and for the values which are dear to us,” he added.
Within two days, Ireland’s values were yet again being held up around the world, not as a beacon of human rights but as a shameful departure from civilised norms. The slow, agonising and perhaps unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar seemed to many people in distant continents to signify a country in which ideology takes precedence over women’s lives.
The two events were actually related, albeit in the most ironic way.
When it looked at Ireland in 2007, the UN Committee on Human Rights criticised Ireland’s failure to clarify its abortion laws, reiterating “its concern regarding the highly restrictive circumstances under which women can lawfully have an abortion in the State” and regretting “that the progress in this regard is slow”.
In its draft report on the progress made since then, the Government states that abortion is actually legal in Ireland but adds that no statistics are maintained in relation to the “number of abortions taking place in Ireland each year”.
The Economic and Social Research Institute has pointed out that some information is available in statistical form, under the heading of “Pregnancy with abortive outcome”.
However, the bizarre official position is: abortions happen in Ireland, but we don’t count them. If Savita Halappanavar had indeed had the abortion she asked for, it would not even have appeared as a number on an official spreadsheet.
This position was also argued by the previous government before the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C versus Ireland. The government told the court there was nothing at all murky about Ireland’s abortion laws: “The procedure for obtaining a lawful abortion in Ireland was clear. The decision was made, like any other major medical matter, by a patient in consultation with her doctor.”
But when the court requested basic details, the government was unable to supply them. Asked by the court how many of these “lawful abortions” take place in Ireland every year, the government, as the court put it, “revealed a lack of knowledge on the part of the State as to, inter alia, who carries out lawful abortions in Ireland and where”.
This is the Irish solution to an Irish problem. Under the X case ruling, it is, as the government’s lawyers pleaded, “lawful to terminate a pregnancy in Ireland if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by a termination of the pregnancy”. But this lawful activity is the subject of wilful ignorance. No one in the State officially knows who is carrying out abortions, how many they are performing and which hospitals will or will not perform them. The State’s considered position appears to be: “Ah well, go ahead, but don’t tell us about it.”