Tragic Irish case shows abortion laws must respect women’s health

Indian activists protest the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion in Ireland and subsequently died of blood poisoning. EPA

Recently, 31 year-old Savita Halappanavar died in the University Hospital Galway, Ireland, from complications that arose after being denied a timely abortion. Her tragic and highly publicised death has led to an investigation into medical negligence and raised issues of duty of care amongst doctors and health practitioners at the Galway hospital. It has also seen increased pressure from Europe on Ireland to clarify its ambiguous abortion law; pressure that has been mounting since the European Court of Human Rights ruling two years ago. However, on a more fundamental level, and perhaps more crucially, Halappanavar’s death has raised questions about how women are valued in Ireland.

Halappanavar experienced pregnancy complications at 17 weeks gestation and was rushed to hospital. She was refused an abortion, despite being told the foetus she carried could not be born, on the grounds that it still had a discernible heartbeat.

For the three days that followed, she must have endured great pain and emotional trauma while she miscarried, during which time she reportedly pleaded with hospital staff for an abortion. She was denied for reasons that may have included either a fear of ambiguous abortion law, or a staunch Catholic view that allowed for a certain interpretation of that law, or sub-standard medical advice and failed duty of care. Perhaps it was a combination of all of those factors. When the foetal heartbeat finally stopped and Halappanavar was permitted to have the procedure, she fell ill with blood poisoning. After another three days she died of septicaemia.

This was a textbook case of abortion as a necessary medical procedure that values women as individuals and saves their lives. The foetus was a much-wanted child, so any misogynistic “irresponsible woman” arguments do not apply here. Additionally, the foetus was miscarried and there was no chance of it being born, which overshadows the metaphysical religious argument for the sanctity of life (of the foetus). Halappanavar’s situation is demonstrative of the danger of ambiguous abortion laws and the very real, horrific outcomes of denying women access to abortion procedures.

Abortion laws are an accurate reflection of the status of women’s rights in any given country, as the link between full human rights and the right to control one’s bodily and reproductive choices can hardly be separated. In the case of Ireland, where Catholicism and politics go hand-in-hand, it is no great surprise that the rights of a pregnant woman are equal to that of the rights of the foetus she carries. The disproportionate focus on the foetus can allow for an argument to follow about the “value of life” and women’s perceived “natural” social role as mothers. But such arguments represent a gross misunderstanding of why women need access to abortion.

During the infamous X Case in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court tried to prevent a pregnant and suicidal 14 year-old rape victim from leaving Ireland to obtain an abortion in Britain. Following public outcry in Ireland - in addition to international condemnation - that ruling was repealed and the Irish Constitution was amended to permit abortions only when they were necessary to preserve a woman’s life. These changes, based on public referendum, were made more ambiguous in mid-2012, however, when the Irish government successfully implemented an almost total abortion ban.

This change has been well documented by the media, particularly regarding the impact it has had on Irish women forced to seek abortions in other countries. But what is in store for women, like Halappanavar, who cannot make that trip - and why is the Irish government so unconcerned about their welfare?

It is not enough to have an abortion law that stipulates for the preservation of women’s lives - it must also respect women as individuals with full rights by promoting their health and supporting their medical needs.

There is overwhelming evidence to prove that families and communities are healthier when women’s reproductive choices are supported through lawful, safe and accessible abortion.

The Irish government may choose to be ignorant of the positive aspects of abortion, but in doing so it remains out-of-touch with contemporary community attitudes and medical science, and continues to place women in danger.

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