It’s taken the death of a 31-year-old Indian woman in a hospital in the west of Ireland to force politicians to confront the taboo over abortion.
Successive governments fearing a backlash in a mainly Catholic nation have avoided introducing laws to fasten down the meaning of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling granting women the right to an abortion where the mother’s life is at risk. Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told parliament yesterday the government won’t “ignore and neglect” the issue anymore.
The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died last month of septicemia after doctors decided not to carry out a termination, reignited the battle over abortion, which remains among the most divisive issues in an increasingly secular society. The death of the dentist in Galway sparked protests and candlelit vigils demanding that the government act, while anti-abortion campaigners prepare to mount resistance on concern that Ireland may open the door to easily accessible terminations.
“There has been an abdication of a responsibility to enact legislation that is practically necessary, but politically costly,” Fiona de Londras, a law professor at Durham University in England, said in an interview. “Those opposed to change are very vocal and very effective in getting their message across.”
The issue moved back to center stage after the Irish Times reported Halappanavar’s story on Nov. 14. The 17-week pregnant woman arrived at the hospital on Oct. 21 suffering from severe back pain and was found to be miscarrying, the newspaper said.
Halappanavar’s request for a termination was refused because a fetal heartbeat was present, the Irish Times said. She was informed she was in a Catholic country, the Dublin-based newspaper reported, citing her husband, Praveen. Days later, on Oct. 28, she died after developing an infection. Her husband said she could have been saved had an abortion been carried out.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny said on Nov. 14 he would await the outcome of investigations into the death before considering an independent inquiry.
Any probes may examine whether doctors considered a substantial risk to her life existed, and, if so, why termination wasn’t carried out given there was scope for abortion in the circumstances. Campaigners say that the lack of any detailed laws to flesh out the general constitutional principle may have hampered medical staff in Galway in deciding when to intervene.
Gilmore, Kenny’s deputy, said the government will act to establish clearer guidelines for doctors.
“This government is going to deal with this issue,” Gilmore said in Dublin yesterday. “We need to bring legal clarity to this situation and that is what we will do. We won’t be the seventh government to neglect and to ignore this issue. We also need to have clarity for medical professionals who have to make medical judgment calls in real life.”
About 1,000 people protested outside parliament on Nov. 14, with rallies also taking place in Cork and London.
India’s ambassador to Ireland, Debashish Chakravarti, told Dublin-based RTE radio today that he had raised his government’s concerns with Irish officials, and wanted an investigation carried out as “quickly as possible.”
“There should be an independent inquiry, short, sweet and to the point, and then the government should legislate,” said Sean Breen, 56, a librarian in Dublin. “We are more concerned with trivial things such as interest rates and putting bankers in jail. We should get on with life.”
The hospital is now investigating the death and some warn against pre-judging the outcome.
“There has been a complete rush to judgment as to what caused the death of the woman at the center of this,” David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, which promotes religion in society, said in an interview. “It has been assumed she died because of our laws on abortion. That has absolutely not been determined,” he said, adding it was his personal opinion rather than that of the Dublin-based institute.
Under a Supreme Court ruling in 1992, a woman has a right to an abortion when there is a substantial risk to her life, and doctors say terminations are carried out in some situations.
Yet successive governments have avoided introducing laws to elaborate the ruling’s meaning, in part because legislating may mean explicitly setting out a threat of suicide as grounds for abortion, which opponents fear could lead to terminations becoming relatively easily accessible. In 2002, voters narrowly defeated a referendum to remove suicide as grounds for abortion.
The Savita case, as it has become known in Ireland, risks exposing tensions in Kenny’s coalition between his more socially conservative Fine Gael and Gilmore’s center-left Labour Party.
Fine Gael is more cautious, with ministers warning against rushing into legislation. Health Minister James Reilly on Nov. 14 told lawmakers that he “doubts” religious beliefs were behind the decision not to carry out the abortion.
“There is potential for this causing divisions in the government because you have a Labour Party which would be reasonably liberal,” said Eoin O’Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “It is an issue politicians have tried to palm off by giving to the people by referendum.”
For now, the government can avoid conflict spilling over, as it awaits the outcomes of inquiries into the death.
Kenny’s administration is also considering a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgment that decided while Ireland had the power over abortion, if there was a right of access to a termination then a system must in place to implement it. Gilmore said yesterday the government will respond to the Council of Europe by the end of the month.
The government may have more room to maneuver than in the past, as the Savita case weighs on voters and the Catholic Church loosens its grip on Irish society. Contraception is widely and openly available. In 1996, divorce was introduced, and same-sex civil partnerships became legal last year.
“I suspect in this case the Irish people if they were asked would have no problem legislating for abortion for the Savita case,” said O’Malley, the academic. “Any situation when you can put a human face on the behavior of politicians or the absence of action, it makes it easier to protest.”