The value of life


Following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar that could have been prevented by a life-saving abortion, Evan O’Quigley argues for immediate legislation in order to protect the life of mothers

Many of us were shocked, appalled, surprised, and angered when the news broke that Savita Halappanavar, a young woman, died in a Galway hospital following a miscarriage, while 17-weeks pregnant. After Halappanavar was told her baby would not survive the pregnancy, her husband Praveen requested that a medical termination of the pregnancy be carried out, but was refused this treatment because a heartbeat was still present. Savita’s condition began to worsen over the next few days later, and as emergency teams tried to save her life she died of blood poisoning as a result of the miscarriage.

Perhaps the most disgusting part of this story is that Sativa was told, following the request for what would have been a life-saving abortion: “This is a Catholic country”. In what is, at least in theory, a secular liberal democracy, this is a disgraceful reason to deny the right of anybody in this country, the right to be in control of their body and their life. Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Irish Supreme Court ruled two decades ago that women do have the right to an abortion in the case that a women’s life was at the risk due to pregnancy. Twenty years later, no formal legislation for the ‘X case’ in 1992 has been passed, and there is no legal protection for women to receive life-saving treatment in cases like that of Savita Halappanavar, whose tragic passing has sparked the same debate in the public for the second time this year.

In the 20 years since the ruling of the Supreme Court in the ‘X case’, campaigns for life-saving abortions have repeatedly called on Ireland’s elected representatives to finally legislate for this. Despite the fact that over 4,000 women travel from Ireland to Britain for abortions every year, and TDs and groups have brought bills forward in the Dail, no progress has been made on this issue, which remains a legal ambiguity. This failure of our elected representatives to do the bare minimum and legislate is a shocking indictment of our political system and begs the question as to whether we really are a republic, in any real sense at all.

We are disrespecting the rights of all our citizens, an increasing number of whom are non-Catholic. Politicians have tried to avoid talking about this issue for 20 years, constantly hoping for a better time to discuss it. Even in 2012, where there is no longer any threat of backlash from Bishops and the Church, they continue to avoid the discussion. A poll conducted by Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes in September showed that an overwhelming majority of 80% of voters would support a change to the law to allow for abortions in cases like Savita’s where a mother’s life be at risk.

Last April, United Left Alliance TD’s Clare Daly and Joan Collins put forward a Bill to finally legislate for the decision held by the courts in 1992. This Bill was voted down by every member of Fine Gael and Labour, whose party whips demanded they refuse support for the legislation. Such politicking when lives are at risk, as this latest news has showed, is a disgrace, and the government should be ashamed for the way it has acted on this matter.

Clare Daly said of the tragedy, “Had Labour and Fine Gael acted upon our Bill, medical guidelines could have been in place which would have ensured that there would have been no grounds for equivocation about performing an abortion when there was a risk to the life of the woman. Instead, the government took the cowardly step of hiding behind the fourth ‘expert group’ on abortion since 1992. This refusal to act has contributed to the circumstances which brought about this woman’s death. Fianna Fáil and the Greens also bear responsibility, due to their failure to legislate for the X Case.”

With members of all our major political parties too afraid of losing votes of elderly conservative voters, a powerful block, the important issue of life-saving abortions has been ignored, for political reasons and nothing else. Not only has the Irish Supreme Court ruled in favour of such legislation, but so too has the European Court of Rights in 2010. It should be no surprise that Fine Gael, a right-wing Christian Democrat party has voted against women’s right to life in these circumstances; however with Labour, a supposedly centre-left/liberal pro-choice party, it is purely to avoid a collapse of the government, and having their ministerial positions revoked. That they would ignore such an important issue, is an embarrassment and a shame.

The Campaign for Labour Policies, an activist group that are calling on the parliamentary Labour Party to act in accordance to progressive beliefs, have called for introducing legislation to allow for termination of pregnancies based on the ‘X case’. Spokesperson Mags O’Brien said today “The Labour Party must immediately initiate emergency legislation in the Dáil to allow for termination of pregnancies based on the X case. The needless death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway could have been avoided. The 20 years of cowardice by the political establishment means that the lives of Irish women are valued less than a foetus that has no prospect of survival. This barbaric practice must end.”

Assuming Fine Gael will not act on this, the ball is now in Labour’s court as to whether they will act properly and stand up to the reactionary and cowardly corners of the government, and bring forth legislation to assure that nothing like the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar ever happens again in Ireland.