- 21 Aug 14
The bare facts of a new case which surfaced last week are utterly shocking. Will this be the final straw that shames Ireland’s legislators into adopting a sensible abortion policy?
War, pestilence and suffering may be rampant elsewhere in the world, but life in Ireland, in its own peculiar way, had been ambling along these past three months. Then: BANG!
Apparently out of nowhere, we are confronted with a story that says it all about the squalid nature of the compromises, imposed on us by the still poisonous interconnections between Church and State here. This is one of those occasions.
Of course, these things never really are out of nowhere.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was introduced in the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway on 28 October 2012. Its name alone should have warned us that this was a thoroughly cowardly, evasive piece of legislative sophistry.
We all know what happened to Savita. Pregnant for 17 weeks, she was in extreme pain when she entered hospital in Galway. The medical team there refused to accede to her request for a termination despite the fact that the foetus she was carrying had nil chance of survival. The baby’s heart was still beating and so they dithered and delayed, dancing on the head of a theocratic pin, hoping that she would abort spontaneously and save them from having to do the right thing. Instead, she contracted sepsis and died. It was a disgraceful day for Irish medicine, pinpointing the inescapable truth that the anti-choice ideology enshrined in our constitution directly puts women’s lives at risk.
Any legislation arising from the death of Savita should properly have been framed in terms of the rights of pregnant women, and their families, to secure a termination here in Ireland, if the life of the woman is in danger, including from the risk of suicide. Instead we got an insulting fudge: the legislation reeked of what sadly is a typically Irish form of hypocrisy. In practice, it was a perverse compromise that erected far too many obstacles for any woman who believed that her life was in danger as a result of pregnancy.
As such, anyone with a bit of cop knew, really, that it was bound to come to grief. But once the debate was over and the legislation passed, fears of this kind tend to fade into the background. In a sense, you want to be proven wrong. It isn’t that you want cowardly politicians to be vindicated. Or women to have to jump through exhausting hoops. Rather, you do not want any more unnecessary human suffering, and you think: fuck it, we might just get lucky!
Life is seldom so accommodating.
This weekend, the news emerged of what seems to have been the first case to be dealt with under the new law. Information is limited. The right to privacy, to which any woman caught up in a situation like this is entitled, means that reporters cannot, for example, say where she is from. And so there are things that we may never know about the case. What we can say with reasonable confidence is as follows...
A short time after arriving in Ireland, a young immigrant woman discovered she was pregnant. Speaking through an interpreter, she told Kitty Holand and Ruadhán MacCormack of the Irish Times that the pregnancy occurred as a result of being raped. A so-called ‘foreign national’, who cannot speak English, the young woman immediately decided that she wanted an abortion. “In my culture it is a great shame to be pregnant if not married,” she said. She feared potential violence at the hands of unnamed individuals. She was just eight weeks into her pregnancy when she found out. What happened over the following two to three months will become clearer with time. But what we can say now is that she was not given the support or assistance which would have been appropriate for a rape victim.
Initially at least, she could not travel outside the jurisdiction for an abortion for fear that she might not be re-admitted. Besides, she did not have the money to cover the cost of travelling to London for an abortion. At 16 weeks, she says that she attempted to take her own life, but was disturbed.
Eventually, she found her way to a GP. The GP referred her to hospital. Gradually, it became clear that she was dependent on the Irish medical authorities consenting to a termination here. As required under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, she was seen by a panel of three doctors. She made it absolutely clear that she did not want a child – and would prefer to die than to give birth. The two psychiatrists agreed that the suicide risk was severe enough to proceed with an abortion. The third member of the panel, a consultant obstetrician, demurred, insisting that the pregnancy could be “terminated” instead by a casesarean section.
A delay of up to three weeks seems to have been involved, during which the potential ‘viability’ of the foetus clearly increased.
Confronted with this decision, the woman felt so strongly about wanting to bring the pregnancy to an end that she went on hunger and thirst strike. In response, the HSE went to the High Court, seeking what – in a description worthy of Orwell – they called a ‘care order’, which would allow them to force-feed her.
This order was granted, in effect confirming that as far as the Irish State is concerned, a pregnant woman does not have the right to her own bodily integrity. By this stage, the young woman was between 23 and 25 weeks pregnant.
Utterly traumatised, threatened with force-feeding, snookered by the Irish medical and legal systems, and desperate for the ordeal to come to some kind of end, the woman finally acquiesced to the operation. In an act of grossly invasive surgery, the woman had her stomach sliced open and the baby was delivered against her wishes. The baby, we are told, will now be taken into the ‘care’ of the HSE.
The damage inflicted on the young woman at the centre of this case is irreparable: she has spoken about the scar on her stomach that will never go away. First this woman was raped; next she was abandoned for want of the €1,500 it would have cost to go to London for an abortion; and then, at considerable cost to the State, she was effectively imprisoned by the Irish authorities until she was forced to give birth.
It is impossible to find the words to convey just how criminally wrong it is to allow the legal quagmire to persist where women are at risk of being put through torture of this kind. And where the application of the law, as it stands, sees a misfortunate baby being brought into the world 15 weeks prematurely, and with a huge risk of life-long disability, disadvantage, illness and Christ knows what else...
We must respect women. We must show more compassion. We must stop treating them as if they have no rights. And to do this, we must repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which is – and always was – utterly degrading to women.
Speaking this week, the Master of the Rotunda Hospital, Dr Sam Coulter-Smith, said that women are well capable of making up their own minds as to what is best for them.
“As clinicians,” he added, “we want to be in a position where we can support women in their choices. We need legislation around that to protect us, particularly in the area of rape, incest and congenital malformation.”
The only answer is another referendum. If the government had any guts they’d start the process now. But they won’t. Will they?