20 years of inaction on abortion access - now a tragedy

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There are some stories that are hard to cover - the death of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant women, from septicemia whose life might have been saved if an abortion was not delayed is a hard as they come. According to the Irish Times Praveen Halappanavar, the husband of Savita said she had asked for a termination several times over a three day period only to be told "this is a catholic country."

For years we were aware that the failure of successive governments to legislate could result in a tragedy but when the first reports started to circulate that this had happened we were horrified. How did we come to this point?

One of our members, Aileen O' Carroll, whose political work since she was a teenager has been dominated by the hypocrisy around abortion in Ireland talked to us about how this affected her.

"I remember when I was 13 trying to work out my view on abortion. Abortion was in the news, a pro-life referendum had just been passed. Most of my friends’ mothers had campaigned on the ‘pro-life’ side. Abortion was in the classrooms. I remember a teacher, walking between our desks, saying 'abortion, abortion', rolling the rrrs, making the word stretch. "Aborrrrrrtion - even the word is ugly". I remember sitting there, too afraid to question.

I remember watching an English woman being grilled on the “Late Late Show” by Gay Byrne about her abortion. She said "I had a back-street abortion when I was not quite 21 years old. I had it for various and several personal reasons. I was a single woman. I had very little money." That interview influenced me more than anything else. I decided that while I would never have an abortion myself, I wouldn't try to stop anyone else having one. I wouldn't make a decision about the circumstances of another woman's pregnancy. Though I didn't know it at the time, despite being influenced by the catholic world I lived in, I supported a woman's right to choose."

Fast forward thirty years and we are in the tragic situation of today's news. A situation brought about through hypocrisy and inaction, through politicians sacrificing the rights of women on the alter of the next election. Although the X-case court judgement and three referendums allowed for abortion under restricted circumstances, no laws have been drafted which would allow hospitals to carry out those abortions. The courts and the people have already spoken and said that where there is a risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide, women should be able to obtain abortions in Ireland. Every party except Sinn Fein and the ULA have been in power and every party has refused to legislate, forever putting the issue off to expert groups.

Savita died in a Galway hopital. According to a press release from Galway Pro-Choice

"Savita was first admitted to the hospital on October 21st complaining of severe back pain. Her doctor initially told her that she would be fine, but she refused to go home. It became clear that her waters had broken, and she was having a miscarriage (spontaneous abortion). She was told that the foetus had no chance of survival, and it would all be over within a few hours.

However, her condition did not take its expected course, and the foetus remained inside her body. Although it was evident that it could not survive, a foetal heartbeat was detected. For this reason her repeated requests to remove the foetus were denied. By Tuesday it was clear that her condition was deteriorating. She had developed a fever, and collapsed when attempting to walk. The cervix had now been fully open for nearly 72 hours, creating a danger of infection comparable to an untreated open head wound. She developed septicaemia.

Despite this, the foetus was not removed until Wednesday afternoon, after the foetal heartbeat had stopped. Immediately after the procedure she was taken to the high dependency unit. Her condition never improved. She died at 1.09am on Sunday the 28th of October.

Had the foetus been removed when it became clear that it could not survive, her cervix would have been closed and her chance of infection dramatically reduced. Leaving a woman's cervix open constitutes a clear risk to her life. What is unclear is how doctors are expected to act in this situation."

Cowardice or callousness?
All the ruling parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens and the Labour party - have prevaricated, delayed, avoided and ignored the issue. This has led to two further court cases where girls in care had to go to the courts in order to be allowed to travel to another country. It has led to court cases over ownership of eggs used in IVF. It has, no doubt, led to the forced pregnancies of immigrant women who cannot travel. It has led to women ordering abortion drugs over the Internet. It has forced women to travel under stressful conditions at great expense to other countries, including women who are carrying foetuses who will not survive birth. And now the delay in carrying out a termination has led to the death of a women. Whether it’s due to cowardice or callousness, all the ruling parties have shown little concern for the misery they inflict on women's lives.

Perhaps twenty years ago implementation of the X-case judgement would have been a step in the right direction. Not now, not anymore. The X-case judgement is not a right to choose. 13 women travel each day from Ireland for a foreign abortion in another country. Those numbers won't change very much if the X-case is written into law. Most pregnancies don't threaten the life of the mother, most women aren't suicidal when pregnant. This is why we need to be clear in saying, the X-case is not enough. It is not up to us to say who can have an abortion and who can't, who will be forced to remain pregnant and who won't, who will be forced to travel and who won't. If we believe that women faced with a crisis pregnancy are the best people to decide, then we have to support a woman's right to choose, we have to say, the X-case is not enough.

As this tragic news emerged tonight demonstrations were being called by a range of pro-choice organisations and networks. There will be a picket of the Dail tomorrow after work called by the ULA and a march on Saturday at 4pm from Parnell Square. We hope to see you there.

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PDF of leaflet advertising Saturday's march240.14 KB
PDF poster advertising Saturdays march31.77 KB

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