Friday, 23 November 2012 06:09

A matter of choice

Written by Louise Fahey

We live in a society where our government's failure to provide framework and legislation for abortion has resulted in the tragic and unnecessary death of a 31 year old woman. Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway, in the Republic of Ireland one week before she passed away on 29 October 2012. Savita had been admitted as a result of back pain, which turned out to be due to a miscarriage. Despite her continued request for a medical termination, doctors refused her on the grounds that the heartbeat of the foetus was still present and Ireland 'is a Catholic country'. The fact that Savita Halappanavar was neither Irish nor Catholic was immaterial to her pleas.

After she had endured more than two further days of agony from the foetus that was dying inside her, doctors finally removed it once the heartbeat had stopped. By this stage the damage had been done. Savita was transferred to the high dependency unit, before being moved to intensive care where she eventually died. The cause of her death was septicaemia, or in simple terms, blood poisoning. Although both the hospital itself and the Health Service Executive (HSE), a government body responsible for providing health and social services to people living in Ireland, are undertaking investigations into the case, it seems evident that had Savita's request to undergo a termination been respected, then the outcome might have been a whole lot different and she might have survived.

The case of Savita Halappanavar is greatly distressing, but perhaps even more so given the fact that the same thing could happen again tomorrow to another woman in any hospital in the Republic of Ireland. I find this thought extremely discomforting: should I find myself in similar circumstances one day, my survival could depend on which side of the Irish border I am living on.

An issue of morals

Discussions about the legalisation of abortion have always been fueled by questions of morality and the possibility of the procedure being murder. In light of the tragic death of Savita, I would like to pose the question of how 'moral' it is to let a woman suffer for days, just because our laws would not allow doctors to remove an almost dead foetus in time? If the purpose of prohibiting abortion is to save lives, then this case illustrates its failure to do so.

But this has always been my major gripe with the pro-life campaign. Abortion is not a black and white issue and claim that it is a means for selfish women to murder their innocent babies is hugely distorted. Youth Defence, who describe themselves as 'a national pro-life organisation working to keep Ireland abortion-free', are an organisation who have in the past been accused by pro-choice supporters of such distortions and misinformation. Earlier in 2012, advertisements for their campaign Abortion Tears Her Life Apart, were criticised for misleading portrayals of women's feelings following an abortion, and for adding to the stigma that already surrounds the issue in Ireland. The advertisements featured the slogan 'There is always a better answer.' In their latest Never a Need 2012 campaign, the group proclaims that 'Abortion never saves a mothers' life - it just kills a baby'.

But of course, as the case of Savita Halappanavar illustrates, it is not that simple. Given that a high number of abortions are for the termination of foetuses that are not going to survive outside of the womb anyway, it seems inhumane for legislation to force a woman to continue unwillingly with a pregnancy that is both mentally and physically grueling for her.

Some women decide to carry a foetus for nine months knowing it's not going to survive when it's born, and I respect their decision to do so. However, I personally would not want to undergo such mental and physical pain, therefore I would opt to have an abortion in such circumstances. I believe this should be a personal decision and every woman should decide this for herself, but for me the advantages of having a procedure to end the pain far outweigh the disadvantages: the psychological torture of knowing that what I am carrying inside of me is going to die when I finally get to hold it in my arms would be just too much for me. If that makes me selfish or immoral, then I would like to hear a justification for such accusations that is not solely based on religion.

Current Position

The right to life of the unborn is expressly stated in Article 40.3.3° of the Irish Constitution. Twenty years ago, a referendum was put to the Irish people, asking whether this article should be amended. The referendum resulted from a Supreme Court judgment, known as the X Case, whereby the Supreme Court overruled a High Court decision prohibiting a 14 year old girl from going abroad to have an abortion. The girl had fallen pregnant as a result of being raped, and her mental health was seriously at risk as a result. In this case, the Supreme Court believed that abortion should be permitted where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, as opposed to her health.

Although the people of Ireland voted in favour of this, and Article 40.3.3° was subsequently amended to give equal right to the life of the mother, the issue was neglected in the years that followed and no interpretation was ever given as to when exactly a mother's life is at risk. Cases of suicide were accepted, but it was never clear at what point it could be decided that not only the mother's health was at risk but also her life. Twenty years after the X Case, such questions remain unanswered and no legislation has been implemented to regulate the area.

The Irish Medical Council's code of ethics and conduct states that in exceptional circumstances, where complications arise and there is little or no hope of a baby surviving, 'it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby'. However, these are not legally binding obligations, and given the lack of actual binding legislation permitting the procedure to be undertaken, it seems that doctors in the Irish jurisdiction are reluctant to perform the procedure for fear of facing liability in court for their actions.

As it stands, the current government is waiting to review the delayed report of a 14-member expert group, which was finally delivered on the 13th of November 2012. A number of vigils to remember Savita took place across Ireland on the 14th of November, as did a protest outside Dáil Éireann, one of the Houses of the Irish Parliament, calling on the government to implement abortion legislation. One protester reportedly said that she had been out in the streets protesting for the X Case in 1992, and now, 20 years later, could not believe she was protesting in the streets again, still waiting for legislation. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has made it clear that until the investigations into Savita's death are completed, the government will be waiting before they decide what course of action to take. However, the passing of every week, month and at this stage, year, brings a new generation of Irish women upholding a decades-old tradition of being forced overseas for a termination, or more recently across the border to Northern Ireland. Because whilst the government can postpone the issue for twenty years or more, it's just not as easy for Irish women to do the same.

Last modified on Friday, 23 November 2012 06:56

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