Comment: It’s time to demand Ireland changes its abortion law

By Darinka Aleksic

The Irish anti-abortion movement is fond of trumpeting the fact that Ireland, in spite of having some of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws, is one of the safest places for a woman to be pregnant. They are right. Alongside other wealthy, developed countries with decent healthcare systems, Ireland has a good safety record when it comes to
maternal mortality.

But there is another reason for this, which campaigners are less willing to concede, and which other countries whose maternal death rates are hugely inflated by restricted abortion do not enjoy: Ireland is able to export its abortion problem to the UK.  It has, in effect, a safe haven of legal, accessible abortion on its doorstep.

Last year over 4,000 Irish women needing terminations were able to do so safely at clinics in Britain. At least 138,000 have come to the UK for this purpose since 1980.

However, for those who are unable, for financial, personal or medical reasons, to make the journey (and many simply cannot meet the costs, which can amount to £2,000), the alternatives are to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or, rarely, as has been revealed this week, death.

Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old Indian woman living in Ireland with her husband Praveen. She was 17-weeks pregnant when she arrived at Galway University Hospital complaining of backache.  Doctors found that she was miscarrying, but according to her husband, their repeated requests for a therapeutic abortion were refused because a foetal heartbeat was still present. He was told: "This is a Catholic country," by his wife's consultant Savita died, three agonising days later, of septicaemia.

What are we to say in the face of this apparently unnecessary death? Public figures on all sides of the 'abortion debate' might agree that Savita's death is a tragedy, but those hoping for a similar degree of unity about the need to ensure that such an event cannot be allowed to happen again may be disappointed.

Those who hope the time has finally come for legislative change that would, at the very least, guarantee the right to abortion in cases where a woman's life is at risk, must know that the Irish anti-choice movement will not give way even to this limited degree without a fight.

Already, statements by groups such as Youth Defence seek to suggest that Savita's death was caused by a delay in administering antibiotics and insist that Ireland's ban on abortion cannot be responsible for this or any other death.  To suggest otherwise is merely an attempt to 'futher the agenda' of pro-abortion campaigners, they claim.

In fact, there is considerable medical support in Ireland for such a view. Just two months ago, 140 Irish health professionals published what they call the 'Dublin Declaration'' stating that "abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a woman".

This fits neatly with the position enshrined in the Irish constitution, amended in 1983 to re-iterate the country's already hard-line stance on the issue, which grants the foetus an equal right to life as the adult Irish citizen.

Indeed yesterday's statement from Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, extending his sympathies to the family of the dead woman, underlines the country's hierarchy of grief.  "A child has been lost, a mother has died and a husband is bereaved," said Mr Kenny. "That is a tragedy."

This is a revealing order of tragedy: a foetus first; then somewhere far behind it, a woman.  Kenny – and perhaps the Irish political and religious establishment with him – remains oblivious to the fact that only one of these three events is likely to have been unavoidable. Evidence points to the fact that Savita died unnecessarily, that her husband's grief was avoidable. From one inescapable tragedy comes three.

The Irish government has prevaricated on the issue of abortion rights for decades. It has ignored the hundreds of thousands of its citizens who have been forced to leave their homes to access safe medical care. It has ignored the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights which has demanded legal change. It can only be hoped that the death of Savita Halappanavar will finally, belatedly, shame it into action.

Darinka Aleksic is campaign co-ordinator at Abortion Rights, the UK's national pro-choice campaign. A demonstration to protest the death of Savita Halappanavar will be held at the Irish Embassy in London on Saturday 17th November at 4pm. For further details visit

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