Savita Halappanavar presented herself at Galway’s NUI hospital on 21 October 17 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe back pain. Upon learning that she was miscarrying she asked several times for a termination, but was refused. It has been reported that a consultant doctor told her directly, "It’s a Catholic country so we won’t terminate while the foetus is still alive." After three days in the hospital she suffered a spontaneous miscarriage after which she was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. She died there three days later, apparently of septicemia. In the timeline of events published widely in the Irish media and presumably provided by sources in the hospital no mention is made of the patient’s request for a termination.
Savita’s exchange with the doctor does seem barbaric, but it perfectly illustrates the lethal ambiguity that characterizes abortion rights in Ireland for the past 30 years. The right to an abortion when there is a danger to the life of the mother is actually enshrined in the Irish constitution, along with the right to information about abortion services available elsewhere in the EU and the right to travel to avail of them. But since these amendments were introduced into the constitution by referendum, no Irish government has had the courage or skill to legislate for them.
The lack of any legal clarity about when a woman is entitled to an abortion has its roots in a moment of supreme cowardice and cynicism on the part of the Ireland’s political class. In the early 1980’s a number of rightwing groups, some tied to the Catholic Church, launched a campaign to push for a referendum to add a constitutional amendment that would prevent the legalization of abortion in Ireland. The campaign, dominated by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), was extremely divisive but it succeeded in gaining the support of the three main political parties, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour. With the entire political establishment in support or neutralized, and the country worn out after an ugly two year pro-life campaign, the amendment was approved by the electorate in 1983. SPUC then sued organisations that provided crisis pregnancy counseling and the Supreme Court ultimately interpreted the amendment to constitute a ban on the provision of counseling or information on how to obtain an abortion in the UK. By 1987 all the clinics that provided non-directive pregnancy counseling had been shut down.
In the summer of 1989 I began a year long sabbatical as an elected student’s union officer in Trinity College Dublin. The union published a free student handbook at the beginning of each academic year that gave advice to students about college services, navigating the libraries and tutor system, cooking, sex, doing laundry, renting accommodation, drinking, living away from home, how to get around, and so on. The book also contained information regarding alternatives available to pregnant women which included keeping the child, adoption, foster care and methods for communicating with facilities in England that provide abortion services. By the time the new academic year began SPUC had taken a case against our union and those from several other universities, 14 individual defendants in all. After a pyrrhic victory in Dublin’s High Court, the Supreme Court issued another pious broadside and slammed us with an injunction preventing us distributing the book. The Court questioned whether abortion could even be considered a "service" given that it is "manifestly contrary" to the public morality. It asserted that just because "grossly immoral" activities may be permitted in other Member States, those activities do not necessarily fall within the sphere of Community law.’ Case closed.
Even magazines like Cosmopolitan stopped carrying ads for services in England fearing they were subject to the ban. Yet thousands of women continued to furtively make their journeys over. Once the Supreme Court had had their say we could not do anything on Campus. The Union had a small permanent staff of non-students and we had no doubt that SPUC and their allies on the bench would shut us down completely if we persisted in open defiance, threatening the staff’s jobs. But because the Student’s Unions were the last place openly providing information young women kept showing up looking for help. Activists advertised the phone number of underground referral services by scratching it into public phones boxes and with graffiti. A sympathetic politician read the number aloud in the Dail, Irelands parliament, symbolically registering it in the public record. The phone number had its own chant.
Periodically of course mad laws like these come up against hard cases and everyone gets to have a second look. So it was two years later with the infamous X case. X was a 14 year-old girl who was suicidal after being raped by a school friend’s father and becoming pregnant. Learning of X’s planned abortion through communication about a potential rape prosecution, the Attorney General sought and was granted a High Court injunction preventing the procedure being carried out. The X story broke over the weekend and by Monday morning thousands of people had taken to the streets to demonstrate against the state making a hostage of a suicidal child. It took two weeks for the Supreme Court to make it’s ruling by which time the clamor from the streets had grown louder. Finally, the Supreme Court lifted the injunction and conceded that in fact a woman could have an abortion if there were a threat to her life, including the threat of suicide. The X case led to two further amendments to the constitution, one guaranteeing the right to travel abroad to avail of services and the other guaranteeing the right to information about services available elsewhere in the EU. But the question of when the right to life of the mother could supersede those of the fetus remained unresolved.
As thousands of women gathered around Ireland to remember the short life of Savita Halappanavar, I was reminded of another horrible Irish death, that of Ann Lovett on the last day of January in 1984. She was 15 when she died and would have experienced puberty during the right wing campaign of the early 1980’s to achieve a constitutional ban on abortion. Ann died from shock as a result of haemorrhage and exposure along with her infant son in a Marian Grotto in the town of Granard in Co. Longford. She had gone to the Grotto alone to deliver her baby. The Coroners Court found that Ann had died from the fatal consequences of a hazardous delivery but there was no mention in any official report of the shame and state of fear that really killed her. She was discovered by three boys, a child dying in the rain, her dead child beside her. She was bright and talented and she had managed to conceal her pregnancy from everyone around her, even her best friends. She and I were the same age.
The Head Sister of her convent school read a note at the burial. “If we’d only known that Ann was pregnant, we would have fully supported her and would have taught her how to take care of herself and her baby. But Ann made another choice.” The reality was that unmarried mothers were still outcast and often punished as a lesson to others. Most were separated from their babies and many were committed to a lifetime of indentured servitude in the Magdalene Laundries, an entirely hidden institution in which ‘fallen’ girls existed in a punishing climate of slavery and penance, reminded daily of their fall from grace through prayer, bullying and imposed silence. This regime persisted until the late 1990’s and interned up to 30 000 women and girls. It was a gulag into which young pregnant girls from poorer backgrounds literally disappeared. The Irish state subsidized and reproduced this system for 75 years, it was dismantled in the 1990’s only as a result of public outcry when it was widely discussed for the first time, a function of the greater collapse in credibility of the Catholic Church.
When Savita’s doctor reported to her that “this is a Catholic country” he spoke for some very powerful forces who have maintained the system of terror that killed Ann Lovett 28 years earlier, and countless others who have died lonely deaths at their own hand or through dysfunction or mental illness. Her husband honorably refused to participate in an internal enquiry that would have buried the story with a bit of time and some hand wringing. Instead he is suing the Irish state in the European Court of Justice for an open and public enquiry into his wife’s death. And he is right in thinking he is more likely to get justice for his young wife there rather than in a secret inquiry. Her death has reopened the abortion war in Ireland, the government is again promising to legislate for X and circumstances under which an abortion can be carried out in Ireland. They have had many chances over the last 30 years, and have failed spectacularly.