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Ireland has avoided confronting its repressive laws by exporting its abortions. That must stop

Savita Halappanavar should still be alive. Her death should be the galvanising moment for Ireland to reform its abortion laws, says Sarah Ditum.

Photo: Getty

Savita Halappanavar should still be alive. Her husband should not be a widower. When she was admitted to hospital on 21 October suffering a miscarriage, and it was found that there was no chance of the baby surviving, the staff of University Hospital Galway should have acted at once to protect her life by performing an abortion. Instead, her husband says that her requests for a termination were refused on the grounds that a foetal heartbeat was present. “The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country,” Praveen Halappanavar told the Irish Times.

With appropriate medical care, Savita could perhaps have been in her home again within a few days, where she and her husband could have begun the painful process of recovery from the loss of the child they wanted. Instead, the hospital apparently refused to remove the remains of the foetus until it was dead – which took an agonising five and a half days. By then, she had contracted the infection that would kill her. On 28 October, a week after her original presentation at hospital, Savita died of septicemia and E.coli.

Even under Ireland’s remarkably harsh abortion law, this should not have happened. Abortion is not available to preserve the physical or mental health of the woman; rape or incest are not valid reasons under Irish law; you would not be entitled to an abortion on the grounds of foetal abnormality, or for economic or social reasons. The one circumstance in which abortion is permitted is when the life of the mother is at risk. The two investigations into Savita’s death should establish why the law was not followed in her case, and perhaps whether there was some element of racism in claiming a religious motive for denying treatment to an Indian woman of Hindu faith.

But the truth is that, even if Savita’s death was avoidable under Irish law, Irish law has fostered the environment in which doctors made the decisions that led to her death. Over many decades, the Irish government has defied public opinion in favour of some liberalisation, and enforced an ultra-conservative constitution that places the foetus’ life on an equal footing with the woman’s. In doing so, the government has hypocritically benefitted from Ireland’s geographical closeness to England. Ireland has avoided confronting its repressive laws by exporting its abortions.

That Irish women are able to obtain abortions is some mercy; that they must do this at the cost of travel to another country (with the attendant expense, disruption and risk to aftercare) is inhumane. The organisation Termination for Medical Reasons campaigns to improve access to abortion for women carrying a baby with no prospect of survival outside the womb. On its website, you can read the agonising stories of women forced to make an overseas journey at a time when, with the grief and trauma of losing their child, they should have had the support of family and community most of all.

What Savita’s case shows, though, is that the harm caused by Ireland’s so called pro-life laws cannot always be packed on an aeroplane and sent out of the way. When the constitution holds that a foetus has the same rights as the woman it is inside, women will die. There are others who will suffer too: those forced to undergo the same anguished wait for a foetus to expire before they can receive treatment are also victims, even if they have the marginal good fortune not to contract a fatal infection on the way.

The international horror at Savita’s death should be a galvanising moment in Irish politics. For too long, Irish women have been the victims of cruel politics and heartless zealots: it is time to listen to the campaigners who speak for the simple truth that women’s lives matter.