This week, the Irish parliament is debating new abortion legislation, to be enacted before the parliamentary summer break. For anybody familiar with the now infamous Savita Halappanavar case, this should instinctively come as welcome news. Naturally, one would assume that the death of a woman in an Irish hospital – who was denied an abortion despite already miscarrying – should cause moral revulsion and spur Irish legislators into action to prevent such needless tragedy in the future. Moral revulsion there was, withpeople all over Ireland coming out to protest, holding vigils, sharing their own stories of pregnancies gone wrong, of hurt inflicted by a system that romanticises women as mothers, but turns its back in moments of crisis. And yet, almost eight months later, the Irish government is proposing a law that does nothing to prevent another scenario like the fateful one endured by Ms. Halappanavar.
For, despite the fact that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 provides for terminations during medical emergencies, it leaves intact the distinction between risk to a woman’s life as opposed to risk to a woman’s health. At present, the Irish Constitution solely allows for the protection of a woman’s life during pregnancy. This has proven detrimental to women, as medical intervention is sometimes delayed while the exact moment of transition from a woman’s health being endangered to her life being endangered, is gauged.
Doctors’ hands are effectively tied to intervene earlier, as the punitive measures attached to having or facilitating abortion, outside of the parameters of the Constitution, are so severe. This “chilling factor”, as the European Court of Human Rights termed it, is also maintained in the new bill, which stipulates that the intentional destruction “of unborn human life” can be subject to punishment of up to 14 years in prison. Women and medical professionals are therefore again criminalised for having or providing an abortion, except where a woman’s life is at risk.
Doctors have spoken out about the arbitrary distinction between risk to life as opposed to health, and the Savita case has highlighted what awful consequences this distinction may entail for women in need of medical care. And yet, the Irish government has failed to respond. Why, when opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the Irish electorate is in favour of legislating for termination in the case of risk to women’s health, would the government ignore, yet again, the wishes of the people? Why will it allow a law to be introduced that is so prohibitive it – according to the leader of the country – changes nothing? Why hold public hearings, invite submissions, open the debate, only then to ignore all of those voices clamouring for change?
The answers might be found in the continued undue influence the Catholic Church exerts in Ireland; in the aggressive and increasingly extreme actions of anti-choice campaigners; in the conservatism of the largest government party; or in the Irish state’s reliance on the UK as a neighbour quietly tasked with taking care of the reproductive health needs of women from Ireland.
Mainly, though, one has the sneaking suspicion that the resistance to change is simply down to control – that good, old-fashioned patriarchal control that the Irish state was built upon, and that is now being successfully challenged in its most quintessential form. In response, Ireland’s tribal elders fudge, procrastinate and cling on even tighter, lest they be swept away by forces of pro-woman, perhaps even feminist progress.
To be fair, there are those in government, especially in the Labour Party, doing their best to create conditions in Ireland for women to fully exercise their reproductive rights on a par with those in other European countries. And to be even fairer, the new bill does clarify abortion law in Ireland and sets out when and how women’s lives (as distinct from our health) should be preserved through abortion.
Real change, though – of the humane and civilised kind that would see women in circumstances like Ms. Halappanavar’s protected – requires far more thoroughgoing reform. A referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment – that constitutional clause giving effect to the arbitrary distinction between women’s lives and health – would have to be called, putting the option of abolishing law that has endangered women’s lives for thirty years, to the people. Given that 78% of them already declared, in the latest opinion poll, their desire to legislate for women’s health, it is highly likely that such a referendum would banish the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution. Now that would be a change – a compassionate and necessary change that could lead to the full protection of women’s lives and health; a change reflecting the wishes of Savita Halappanavar’s family; and a change responsive to the moral revulsion experienced by each of us when women die needlessly.
Dr Clara Fischer is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network and a member of the Abortion Rights Campaign