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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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.