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IRELAND/ Waters: Some further steps closer to readily available abortion

JOHN WATERS comments on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, recently passed oin Ireland, and on how it might open several doors into a more “liberal” dispensation of abortion

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With the passing of the controversial Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, Ireland has moved one step – perhaps two or three steps – closer to readily available abortion. From, the “pro-choice” perspective, unquestionably, this is the most significant ‘gain’ in over 30 years of agitation. Although the government insists that the legislation does no more than ‘clarify’ the existing situation, it is clear that it may open several doors into a more “liberal” dispensation.

It arises from the latest in a long line of controversies in which various pregnant women have – sometimes anonymously, sometimes not – acquired a totemic status in Irish public discourse. The latest was the late Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, who died in hospital last October as the result of an infection. Her husband claimed that she asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated, but that this request was persistently refused because there was still a foetal heartbeat. He claimed they were told that this was the law and that “this is a Catholic country”. The story travelled to every corner of the globe, and with it the suggestion that Savita died in a dark place, in a country obsessed by theological niceties and outmoded understandings.

It was six months before the truth emerged: The inquest into Savita’s death found there were numerous procedural failures, as well as a degree of confusion as to the correct interpretation of the law, which accords equal rights of protection to mother and child until the point where there is a danger to the life of the mother. The inquest made it clear that there was no moment at which there might have occurred a legal termination with any possibility of saving her life. The phrase “this is a Catholic country”, it turned out, was uttered by a midwife on the fringes of the situation, purely by way of commentary on the origins of the legal situation. It occurred in the course of a casual conversation – no more than gossip – and was unrelated to questions concerning the treatment of Savita’s condition.

The Halappanavar case, however, caused the entire abortion debate to be reopened, including a leftover dimension from 20 years before, in 1992, when a 14 year-old girl who had been raped by a neighbour was given permission by the Supreme Court to have an abortion on the grounds that she was suicidal on account of her pregnancy. This case – known as the “X Case” – had never been formally legislated for, and the Halappanavar tragedy was used to reignite the discussion, leading to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.