Abortion in Ireland - a small step forward

The death of Savita Halappanavar lifted the lid on the church, the state, and women's reproductive rights in the Republic of Ireland, and has been the catalyst for the new legislation on the rights of pregnant women proposed last week.

Ann Rossiter
18 June 2013

After a torturous debate in Dail Eireann (the Irish parliament), beginning in November 2012, the Draft Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill  was published at midnight on 12 June 2013. The Bill now has to make its way through the parliamentary process and is expected to be passed before the summer recess. Following decades of government inaction and the censure of the European Court of Human Rights, it looks as if the coalition government of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, together with support from Sinn Fein, will have sufficient voting strength to get the Bill through. 

The Bill restates the general prohibition on abortion in the Republic of Ireland under the 1861 Act imposed under British rule. However, for the first time in the history of the state since it was founded in 1921, an assessment process is set out now to establish the circumstances in which there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of a woman where the only treatment that will avert that risk is the termination of pregnancy. The assessment process will require that an obstetrician/gynaecologist and a second relevant specialist must jointly agree and certify that the termination of pregnancy is the only measure which will save the woman’s life. In the case of the risk of loss of life from suicide, the assessment process will involve three specialists; one obstetrician/gynaecologist and two psychiatrists must jointly and unanimously agree and certify that the termination of pregnancy is the only measure that will save the woman’s life.  Whilst the Bill is welcomed by many pro-choice people as small step in the right direction, the multiple examinations women will be required to go through means that most will opt to take the abortion trail to England, as has been the case since the enactment of the British 1967 Abortion Act.

The new Bill does not allow for termination in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormalities, despite considerable public support for their inclusion in the legislation. It does, however, state that it will be an offence to intentionally destroy unborn human life, with guilty parties liable to a fine or imprisonment for fourteen years. However draconian this sounds, it is an improvement on the penalty of life imprisonment with hard labour meted out under the 1861 Act. 

The catalyst for the new legislation can be traced to the case of a 17-week pregnant woman with severe back pain admitted to a hospital in the west of Ireland. After examination, she was told that her cervix was fully dilated and her amniotic fluid leaking. Given its immaturity, it was made clear that her foetus would not survive. She was told that once she miscarried her ordeal will be over and she could return home. But it wasn't over. A spontaneous abortion failed to occur in the four or five hours predicted by the consultant gynaecologist. In spite of her repeated requests for an abortion, the woman was informed that since "this is a Catholic country" no intervention was legally possible while the foetal heartbeat was present. Three days later the foetal heartbeat stopped. Seven days after admission to hospital on 29 October 2012 the woman died of septicaemia. She was just one of an indeterminate number left to die in Irish hospitals when an abortion could have saved their lives.

As the world knows by now, the woman in question was Savita Halappanavar from the state of Karnataka in south-west India. She was a practising dentist living in Galway city with her husband, Parveen. This was to be their first child. As soon as the case became public knowledge people poured onto the streets to join vigils, rallies and demonstrations. In Galway, Savita's adopted home, those taking part in candlelit vigils carried her portrait bearing the captions: "Never again", and, poignantly, "She had a heartbeat too". For once, the strident voices of the anti-choice multitude were silent. But not for long. As soon as the Taoiseach (prime minister) announced the government's decision to propose legislation allowing abortion when a woman's life is in danger, the proverbial Pandora's Box was flung open, raising the spectre of other women with a crisis pregnancy being subjected to a repetition of Savita's ordeal.

Politicians, men of the cloth, lawyers and journalists, have pitched headlong into a war of words over how to define "abortion" in the business of issuing guidelines for medical intervention, as well as "life" and "health" in the context of a pregnant woman contemplating or threatening suicide when, say, she is pregnant as a result of rape. Plastic foetuses, religious medals and blood soaked letters containing accusations of mass murder have been directed at the Taoiseach and his colleagues from anti-choice elements. Their fear is that any legal concession would, in the long run, end up introducing a UK-style abortion regime through the back door.

The issue of suicide as grounds for a legal abortion stretches back to 1992 when a 14-year old rape victim was permitted to travel to Britain because of her threat to take her life.  "X", as she is known, was prevented by a High Court injunction from leaving Irish jurisdiction to obtain an abortion in Britain, despite displaying strong suicidal tendencies. As with Savita, people poured onto the streets and public disquiet was such that terms like 'civil war' were being invoked, seeing that the population was split right down the middle on the issue.  Ultimately, the case went to the Supreme Court where the injunction was overturned. The Supreme Court went much further in the final judgement in the "X" case, ruling that abortion was lawful in the Republic in the event of there being a real and substantial risk, physical or mental, to the life of the mother. 

The fallout from the abortion ban in the Republic of Ireland (Northern Ireland, although part of the UK, also has a ban in place under the 1861 Act) is that a recorded underground abortion trail between Ireland and Britain has been in existence since the British 1967 Abortion Act came into being. Like “ships in the night” abortion seekers come and go in secret fearful of being "found out" by family, friends, work colleagues and the wider society. Figures for 2011 show that 4,149 abortion seekers from the Irish Republic (with a total population of 4.65 million) and 1,007 from Northern Ireland (with a total population of 1.78 million) travelled to British clinics at a cost of up to £2,000 each. Anecdotal evidence suggests that considerable numbers give false British addresses which result in their being included in the abortion statistics for England and Wales.

Under the heavy hand of the Catholic Church, the mainstream Irish community ignores abortion seekers arriving each day in Britain's largest cities. However, help has been on offer from organisations like the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group (IWASG), part of the 'alternative' Irish community in London.  An entirely non-funded voluntary Irish feminist group, in existence for twenty years between 1980 and 2000, IWASG provided information, accommodation, finance, and above all, a sympathetic ear.  Currently, this work is being undertaken by the Abortion Support Network (ASN) whose reach stretches beyond London.

Why is Ireland such an anomaly?

Many people ask how Ireland as a Western European state could have come to this pass. There is no simple answer, but undoubtedly, the disastrous condition of the Southern Irish State (the Republic) in the aftermath of the War of Independence from Britain (1919-21), the partitioning of the island (1920) and the Civil War (1922-23), have had a major bearing on the matter.  In a new state weakened by war and by partition, economic collapse, and massive levels of emigration, it is hardly surprising that a powerful institution like the Catholic Church moved in to fill the breach.  In no other European state, with the exception of Poland, was such a close relationship established between the Catholic Church and national identity. Persecuted for centuries, especially under the Penal Laws established by British colonial rulers in the late seventeenth century, the Church finally regained its place in Irish society. It remained a highly powerful, and highly popular institution, its clergy regarded as folk heroes - until now.  In recent years, the seemingly endless clerical sexual abuse of boys and girls, as well as revelations of maltreatment of unmarried mothers and "wayward women" incarcerated in punitive institutions, have finally become public knowledge. In a state that has never had an anti-clerical movement, it is difficult to know whether such knowledge will ultimately destroy clerical power and influence.

In the immediate years after independence the Republic was faced with a choice of pathways in relation to social legislation and social welfare. In theory, the "new Ireland" could have committed itself to building upon the existing British social and welfare infrastructure, much of it provided by the state (under the Poor Law, for example), by the religious orders, especially by nuns and brothers, and by philanthropic individuals. However, there was considerable opposition from the powerful Catholic Social Movement in the 1920s and 30s to the idea of state involvement in social policy. In the Vatican world view the state had the function of maintaining public order but should refrain from intervening in social affairs. The result was that although financed from the public purse, the provision and management of the education and health services, the delivery of welfare service, including the distribution of charity to the poor, was led by the Catholic Church.

Catholic social teaching stressed the centrality of the family, and this had considerable implications for women who were allocated a 'special place' by both church and state. Taking its cue from the Vatican, the 1937 Constitution of the Republic legally established that women's primary role was that of mother and carer sequestered in the home and economically dependent on her husband, the "head of household". Marriage bars were introduced in many areas of work, the civil service and nursing being examples, and prohibitions were imposed on women's employment in industrial work.  Women were denied access to legal aid and they were not allowed to serve on juries. No welfare was available as of right to unmarried mothers, deserted wives or prisoners' wives. A battered wife could not exclude her violent husband from the home. If a wife left home, her husband had the right to claim damages from anyone who "enticed" her away, or who harboured her, or who committed adultery with her. Furthermore, her husband could legally disinherit her. The Irish Constitution banned divorce and prohibited the importation or sale of contraceptives. Although not explicitly prohibited in the Constitution, abortion remained outlawed under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act

In the 1970s and '80s there were significant changes in the position of women in Irish society.  A feminist movement emerged which began to challenge the discriminatory treatment of Irish women. There was also pressure from the European Community, of which Ireland is a member, for the state to conform to Community norms. As a consequence, a series of wide-ranging reforms were implemented.  Battle royals were fought to introduce contraception and divorce. Unsurprisingly, powerful conservative Catholic organisations complained vociferously about such radical changes and set about copper fastening the law in one area where they felt confident of success, i.e. abortion. To this end, they proposed an amendment to the constitution to equate the life of the foetus with that of the pregnant woman.  After a bitterly divisive campaign, the Irish people voted in a referendum in 1983 to place the life of the "unborn" from the moment of conception on a par with that of the "born". The consequences are still being played out as we have seen in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar, whose death "lifted the lid" on church, state and the lack of women's reproductive rights for women living in the Republic of Ireland. Whilst the new Bill represents progress, we still have along way to go before the Irish republic affords women the same rights as those living in other Western European countries

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