Galway City, Ireland – Ground-breaking changes ushering in one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world continue to polarise Ireland.
Both those calling for abortion to be permitted and those who oppose it have attacked a new law permitting termination when there is a grave threat to a mother’s life.
The reform follows a public outcry over the death of an Indian woman last year who developed complications caused by a miscarriage after being denied a life-saving abortion.
I couldn't vote for this legislation as it continues to criminalise women and I can't stand by that.
Abortion has long divided Ireland, a largely Roman Catholic country where a lack of clarity over when termination is permissible for medical reasons has left many doctors uncertain about the circumstances in which they can proceed.
Pregnancy termination outside defined parameters remains a criminal offence that was until recently punishable by up to life in prison.
“I couldn’t vote for this legislation as it continues to criminalise women and I can’t stand by that,” said Irish politician Richard Boyd Barrett. “The government won’t even allow for abortion where fatal foetal abnormalities are present – it’s regressive and wrong.”
News reports on Monday quoted the UK’s Metropolitan Police saying an investigation was continuing into the death of another woman living in Ireland, who came to the United Kingdom for an abortion and died in a taxi shortly after it was performed.
Restrictive abortion laws have long resulted in women travelling from Ireland to the neighbouring United Kingdom for abortions. Britain’s Department of Health says more than 4,000 Irish women visit the country each year for the procedure.
A ruling of the country’s Supreme Court in 1992 allowed terminations where a woman’s life was at risk because of problems in pregnancy, but it was not codified into law, leaving doctors without guidelines – and many women vulnerable.
“No government over the past 20 years has wanted to touch this issue,” Mark Murphy of Doctors for Choice Ireland told Al Jazeera.
“It’s very problematic for doctors on the ground when legalistic common law terminology is being applied to medical practice. It’s not practical for doctors and it’s not helpful when it comes to protecting a patient’s health.”
It was this lack of clear guidelines alongside a delay in diagnosis that have been widely blamed for the death last October of Savita Halappanavar, a woman of Indian origin living in Ireland.
She died in a hospital from septicaemia and subsequent multiple organ failure brought on by a miscarriage after being denied an abortion.
Halappanavar, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child and miscarrying when she was hospitalised in Galway City. She made several requests for an abortion but was refused – at one point being told this was not possible as she was “living in a Catholic country”.
The woman was informed that, under Irish law, doctors could not abort the foetus as its heart was beating, although they had recognised it was not viable and would not survive. The foetal remains were removed a few days later and she died.
|Pro-life campaigners outside the Irish parliament [Reuters]|
Halappanavar’s death caused an international outcry that galvanised politicians into action after successive Irish governments failed to address the case for reform.
Anand Grover, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health, raised concerns about the treatment of women in Ireland, saying that criminalising abortion discriminates against them, particularly the poor and minorities.
Amnesty International called on Ireland’s government to bring abortion legislation in line with global human rights laws.
Ireland’s health department has insisted there is no Catholic ethos influencing the treatment they provide and that Halappanavar’s death was a case of “medical misadventure”.
An inquest found there was inadequate assessment and monitoring in her care, a failure to offer all options to her, and that clinical guidelines relating to sepsis had not been followed.
The dead woman’s husband, Praveen Halappanavar, has expressed a lack of confidence in the verdict and called for a public inquiry. He is taking legal action against the health department and plans to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
He has also received abusive letters from opponents of abortion in Ireland telling him to “leave the country”.
‘Not the right direction’
The new law – the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill – was passed after a marathon debate by Ireland’s parliament earlier this month and is now waiting to be signed by the president.
This legalises abortion under very limited circumstances where there is a real and substantial threat to the life of the mother, or the risk that she will commit suicide.
However, a potentially suicidal woman must be assessed by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician and, if they fail to agree, a panel of seven psychiatrists.
The government rejected opposition appeals for abortion to be permitted in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. Those who have abortions outside the terms of the legislation can still be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
Yet the new law has failed to satisfy all sides in the country’s heated abortion debate.
Sarah Malone of the Abortion Rights Campaign argues that women should be given the choice to decide for themselves on this issue and that this responsibility should not rest with the medical profession.
It's not based on any of the evidence that has been presented to the government from the medical professionals.
“There is no medical basis for distinguishing when there is a real and substantial threat to the life of the mother,” Malone said. “This legislation has not moved in the right direction, it wouldn’t have saved Savita’s life.”
Murphy of Doctors for Choice also said the law doesn’t go far enough. He noted a recent opinion poll showed that 80 percent of Irish people agree that women who are pregnant because of rape should be allowed to have an abortion, but this is not included in the bill.
“While we are pro-choice, we are not happy with the legislation,” Murphy said. “It continues to criminalise women and the process which they have to go through in order to have their autonomy is tantamount to an inquisition.”
Meanwhile, Cora Sherlock of the Pro Life Campaign said anti-abortion campaigners were also deeply unhappy with the new law.
“It’s not based on any of the evidence that has been presented to the government from the medical professionals. They asked for evidence to see if an abortion was a solution for a woman with suicidal ideations and they were told it wasn’t – but they have gone ahead regardless,” Sherlock said.
As the debate in Ireland continues, an abortion-related death in January 2012 reportedly under investigation in the UK will likely intensify it. The 20-months pregnant woman living in Ireland with a health condition was told she couldn’t have an abortion. She went to London to have the procedure done, and died in a taxi hours later.
“She was sick, but we were told that nothing could be done in Ireland,” her unidentified husband told the Irish Times.