On 21st October 31 year old Savita Halappanavar visited a hospital in Ireland, seventeen weeks pregnant and suffering from back pain. Doctors soon discovered she was having a miscarriage, and she requested an abortion. However, the doctors were still able to detect a foetal heartbeat, and therefore refused her request as Irish law forbids abortion unless there is a serious threat to the mother’s life. Three days later, Savita died of septicaemia.
This tragic story has brought international attention to the issue of abortion laws in Ireland. Many feel that the current legislation needs reform in order to protect the lives of expectant mothers. More than 50 Members of the European Parliament have signed a letter asking the Irish government to change abortion legislation, including the Irish MEP Paul Murphy, and there has also been considerable public support.
So is Ireland alone in its stance on abortion? Other European countries which have similar legislation include Cyprus, Poland, and Northern Ireland, with Malta prohibiting all cases of abortion. However, Ireland’s laws are seen as the most controversial as they are predominantly based on the Catholic faith which many women affected, including Savita, do not follow. Her parents have raised the question of whether there should be different laws for different faiths in Ireland as it does not seem fair that in a modern multicultural society, one particular religion is given precedence.
This is also not the first time Irish abortion laws have been a focus of public and media attention. In December 2010 three women took their experiences of abortion to the European Court of Human Rights, where it was ruled that Irish abortion laws had violated the rights of one of them. In addition, in 1992 Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that a fourteen year old girl who had been raped and was threatening to commit suicide could receive an abortion due to dangers to her mental health. However, this was never articulated into a new law, so there is still an ethical dilemma and much ambiguity for what doctors should do in cases such as this.
The question remains, is it possible to change the abortion laws of a country which values religion so highly? In the USA it was shown to be entirely possible. In 1973 the highly controversial Roe vs. Wade case was brought to the American Supreme Court, where a twenty-five years old woman argued that the laws forbidding abortion were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that governments lacked the power to prohibit abortions as it violated freedom of personal choice in family matters, which is outlined in the fourteenth amendment of the US constitution. This case drastically changed views upon the legality of abortion, and will most likely be referenced in this particular case.
It is evident that the Irish government must recognise the need for amending the abortion laws following the media attention this story has received, but will they go as far as is necessary to protect the lives and rights of women?