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.

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.

Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.