Shame on Ireland’s Catholic Bishops and our cowardly politicians. They could have protected the life of 31-year-old Savita Praveen Halappanavar, who tragically died last month in Galway after doctors denied her the right to abort an unviable foetus during a miscarriage.
Instead, while Savita was dying, the Catholic church was running an immoral propaganda campaign to mislead Irish people into believing that pregnant women will always get the medical care they need in Irish hospitals.
And Irish politicians were yet again refusing to legislate for abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman. They have now repeatedly refused to do this for twenty years, since the Irish courts established this right in the X case.
It took a raped pregnant teenager to establish this right in 1992. It should not have taken the death of a pregnant woman, twenty years later, to remind Irish politicians of their duty to legislate for that right.
The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar
Savita, a 31-year-old dentist living in Galway, was seventeen weeks pregnant when she went to University Hospital with back pain on Sunday 21 October. Doctors found that she was miscarrying, and that the foetus could not survive. However, they refused to remove the foetus because it still had a heartbeat.
Savita spent three days in pain, sometimes agony, as the hospital ignored her repeated requests for a medical termination. Her husband, 34 year-old engineer Praveen Halappanavar, says they were told that the reason was that “This is a Catholic country.”
Because her cervix remained fully open for this time, Savita was in prolonged danger of infection, comparable to having an untreated open head wound. Savita developed septicaemia, and she died on Sunday 28 October, a week after entering hospital.
By then doctors had removed the foetus, but only after its heartbeat had stopped. If they had removed the foetus when it was clear that it could not survive, Savita’s cervix would have closed earlier and she would have been less likely to develop the infection.
Rachel Donnelly, a spokeswoman for pro-choice campaigners in Galway, says: “This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences.”
The shame of Irish Bishops and politicians
This is primarily a human issue, about the life and death of an actual living person, a factor that Catholic Bishops and Irish politicians often seem to forget in their obsessions with the theological status of embryos and foetuses, and the political power of the conservative vote.
In 1983, at a time of political instability in Ireland, with three general elections in eighteen months, pressure by the Catholic right led to a constitutional referendum known as the Pro-Life Referendum. Abortion, which was already illegal, was now also made unconstitutional.
The new Article 40.3.3 of the constitution said that: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
Everyone involved in this debate acknowledged that, in practice, Irish women could still travel to England for an abortion. This safety valve, of having a country on our doorstep with more humane laws than ours, meant we could focus on theological debates here and ignore the real suffering of pregnant women who needed an abortion.
The X Case and the right to travel
However, in 1992, this convenient illusion was shattered. A fourteen year old Irish girl was raped by a neighbour and became pregnant and suicidal. Her parents asked the police whether DNA from an aborted foetus could be used in a court case against the man who raped her.
Instead of helping this raped and suicidal child, the State responded by taking an injunction to prevent her from traveling to England for an abortion. The Attorney General instituted this injunction, based on Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution.
Amidst public outrage, the Supreme Court quickly overturned the injunction. It found that a woman had a right to an abortion under Article 40.3.3 if there was “a real and substantial risk” to her life. This right did not exist if there was a risk to her health but not her life; but it did exist if the risk was the possibility of suicide.
This case became known as the X case. Incredibly, the Irish Government responded to the X Case by proposing a new constitutional amendment, which if passed would have made abortion unconstitutional even if a pregnant woman was suicidal.
Thankfully, the Irish people rejected this uncaring amendment, and instead passed two amendments to allow pregnant women to travel outside of the state for an abortion, and to allow people to distribute information about abortion services in other countries.
By the way, if you are not from Ireland, yes, you read that correctly. In 1992, the Irish people held a constitutional referendum to allow women to travel outside of the state.
It is of course positive that Irish people react more compassionately when faced with real cases of suffering than with theoretical debates about theology, but it is a very low ethical hurdle to have to enshrine in our constitution the right of women to travel outside the state.
The ABC Case and the duty to legislate
Since 1992, a woman has had the right to an abortion in Ireland, if there is a real and substantial threat to her life, including the threat of suicide. But for twenty years, Irish Governments have refused to legislate to regulate that right.
Indeed, ten years ago, in 2002, the Irish Government tried to tighten the law again, with yet another constitutional referendum, again intended to make abortion unconstitutional even if a pregnant woman was suicidal. Again, the Irish people rejected this uncaring proposal.
Then just two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on complaints from three anonymous women (known as A, B and C) who had to travel from Ireland to England to have abortions, for various different reasons.
The European Court found that there is no automatic right to an abortion under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that two of the women did not have a right to an abortion, but that Ireland had violated the Convention with regard to the third woman.
The reason was that abortion is legal in Ireland when the life of a pregnant woman is at risk, and the Irish state had failed to provide an accessible and effective procedure by which a woman can have established whether she qualifies for a legal abortion.
Catholic dogma and theological gobbledegook
Twenty years after the X case, and two years after the ABC case, pregnant women in Ireland are still caught in the grip of Catholic dogma and political cowardice.
The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has responded to the ABC ruling by launching a new campaign to stop the Irish Government from carrying out its duty to legislate. The campaign’s website is at http://chooselife2012.ie.
Just yesterday, Bishop John Fleming wrote in the Irish Times:
“In fact, Ireland, without abortion, is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother. This is something about which we should be proud and is a tribute to the excellent care provided by hospital staff who treat both mother and unborn child with equal dignity and respect as people in their own right. Clearly, if the life of the mother is threatened, by illness or some other medical condition, the care provided by medical professionals will make sure that she receives all the medical care needed.”
This, of course, is simply untrue. And Bishop Fleming’s case for the Catholic Bishops’ campaign shows how unreal is the source of their arguments:
“For those who view life through the lens of their Christian faith, our bodies are sacred; temples of the Holy Spirit, created in the image of God and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Christians, our bodies are not our own to do with them what we will. Our bodies come from God, are created in God’s image and destined for eternal life with him in heaven. This is our faith and this is what distinguishes us from those who do not share our faith.”
This type of theological gobbledegook should never be allowed to take precedence over the real life suffering of real life people in the real life world.
The ever-present Irish political cowardice
However, there is considerable evidence that Irish politicians will continue to allow this to happen, and will continue to abdicate their duty to legislate.
When the Minister for Health, James Reilly, set up an expert group to examine the implications of the ABC case for Irish law, several elected politicians chose to announce a rebellion.
Fifteen Fine Gael TDs and Senators said they would oppose the legalisation of abortion, even if there was a government whip on the vote, and they insisted the findings of the expert group be discussed with them before it is brought to Cabinet.
Lucinda Creighton TD said that that resolving the abortion issue “should not be a priority for this Government” and that her “preference would be just not to deal with this issue right now”. She told her colleagues that, unlike a directive from the European Court of Justice, a European Court of Human Rights judgment is not legally binding.
That may be the case, but the European Court judgment is politically persuasive, and it is morally impossible to ignore.
The Irish Courts, and the Irish people, have repeatedly decided that abortion is legal in Ireland when there is a risk to the life of a pregnant woman. Our politicians have a duty to legislate for that, and they should not be allowed to abdicate that duty.
Ireland must legislate for the X case now
The Irish Government must legislate for the X case now. This would be an absolutely minimal response to the shameful inaction of the past two decades. And it should be a first step to a more compassionate human rights based approach to abortion generally.
Pro-choice campaigners are rightly outraged at the tragic and avoidable death of Savita Praveen Halappanavar, a Hindu from India whose life was cut short by Catholics from Ireland.
Rachel Donnelly, Galway Pro-Choice spokesperson, says:
“This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences. As the European Court of Human Rights ruled, as long as the 1861 Act remains in place, alongside a complete political unwillingness to touch the issue, pregnant women will continue to be unsafe in this country.”
And Sarah McCarthy, Galway Pro-Choice member, says:
“Deaths like Savita’s are the most severe consequence of the criminalisation of abortion, yet it has countless adverse effects. We must reflect long and hard on the implications of Savita’s tragic and untimely passing, and we must act to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.”
Stephanie Lord, Choice Ireland spokesperson says:
“Today, some twenty years after the X case we find ourselves asking the same question again – if a woman is pregnant, her life in jeopardy, can she even establish whether or not she has a right to a termination here in Ireland? There is still a disturbing lack of clarity around this issue, decades after the tragic events surrounding the X case in 1992.”
And Sinead Ahern, Choice Ireland spokesperson says:
“It is quite startling that some 20 years after the Supreme Court called for legislation in the X judgment, a seventh successive government continues to abdicate its responsibility to address the subject. This is not an issue about TDs’ views on abortion, it is simply an issue of giving effect to existing constitutional rights and respecting the result of two referenda in which the Irish people rejected rolling back on the X Case.”
Some things that you can do to help
- Contact your politicians today. Let them know that you want them to legislate for the X case now.
- Pro Choice Campaign Ireland is organising a protest outside Dail Eireann at 6 pm today, Wednesday 14 November.
- Galway Pro Choice is screening two documentaries about abortion in Ireland in aid of the Abortion Support Network, in NUI Galway at 8.30 pm on Friday 16 November.
- Action on X is organising a march from the Garden of Remembrance to a candlelit vigil at the Dail at 4 pm on Saturday 17 November.
- Galway Pro Choice is organising a candlelit vigil in memory of Savita, at Browne’s Doorway on Eyre Square in Galway at 5pm on Saturday 17 November.
- Galway Pro Choice is organising a public meeting ‘Legislate for the X case now!’ in the Harbour Hotel, Galway, at 7.30 pm on Thursday 22 November.
It took a raped teenager to establish the right of a pregnant woman to have an abortion in Ireland when there is a risk to her life. It should not have taken the death of a pregnant woman, twenty years later, to remind Irish politicians of their duty to legislate for that right.
Tragically, that is what has now happened. Please do what you can to ensure that it does not happen again.