Many of you will have already heard of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Savita Halappanava in Ireland last month. For those few still blissfully unaware, Ms Halappanava went into hospital 17 weeks pregnant, presenting with pains in her back, and was told she was miscarrying her much-wanted first child. However, due to the fact that there was still a foetal heartbeat, she was refused the termination she and her husband repeatedly asked for to relieve her suffering. They were denied on the grounds that she was in a ‘Catholic country’ even though she argued that she was neither Catholic nor Irish. Over the next few days, her condition deteriorated (the foetal heartbeat stopped four days after she entered hospital and the remains were then finally removed) her heart rate increased and her organs began to fail. She died of septicaemia on Sunday 28th October, over a week after she had begun to miscarry.
She was 31 years old.
This atrocious situation and others like it are possible as a result of the much-maligned ban on abortion in the Republic of Ireland “except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother”. It is obvious that even this law is not being properly enforced as Ms Halappanava’s deteriorating condition was evidently not prioritised by supposed medical professionals. Although there is to be an investigation at the hospital, this will be of little comfort to her husband who has already travelled back to India to have his wife cremated.
The history of abortion law in Ireland is long and complicated (I recommend researching ‘The X Case’ in 1992, when the Attorney General tried to prevent a fourteen-year-old rape victim from travelling to England for a termination) and the war is still being waged today. The proposed opening of a Marie Stopes International abortion clinic in Belfast, Northern Ireland – a short train ride over the border from Dublin – has incited rage and threats from anti-abortion campaigners, and it is now in doubt whether the clinic will be able to open at all. Even in Northern Ireland, however, the laws on terminations are far stricter than in the rest of the UK – the limit in this clinic would be 9 weeks’ pregnancy compared to 24 and no surgical abortions would be offered.
This heartbreaking story has already triggered protests outside the Irish parliament calling for a change in the current regulations. If anything positive is to come out of the completely horrific ordeal of the Halappanavas and their families, please let it be a reform of Irish abortion laws so that not one more woman will have to die in pain, surrounded by people who could save her. Women in Ireland should no longer have to sneak across the ocean to have their abortions in another country, those of them who can afford it at all. In one passage in Caitlin Moran’s wonderful book How to Be a Woman she describes a young Irish girl in the abortion clinic paying in cash, heading straight out after her procedure to catch the ferry home alone and walking sore. The hopelessness of this image illustrates perfectly the desperate situation into which many Irish women are forced by the law – a law dating back to 1861. It’s been 151 years; It’s definitely about time for a change.