Irish Law, “Conscience Clauses,” and Needless Death: Three Questions About Savita Halappanavar’s Death
Last night, we reported on the unnecessary and tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, who entered an Irish hospital undergoing what turned out to be a miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy at 17 weeks, and was denied a life-saving abortion because, as she and her husband were told, Ireland is “a Catholic country.” Translation? Even a non-viable fetus, perhaps already dead but in any case absolutely certain not to survive, is more important than a woman’s life.
Numerous questions have arisen in the wake of this case.
One: Why did this happen? Doesn’t Ireland, a country with otherwise draconian abortion laws, allow abortion to save the life of the mother?
Two: Was there any doubt an abortion was necessary to save Savita’s life?
Three: Can this happen in the United States?
I’ll take these in turn.
The reason this happened is at once very simple and highly complex. It starts with Irish abortion law, and ends with the imposition of a misogynistic ideology on a woman literally begging for mercy from pain and for her own life as she pleaded with her doctors numerous times to perform an abortion on a fetus it was clear would not live.
Current Irish law on abortion is somewhat murky. The country’s laws, like those of most others, have shifted dramatically over the past two centuries, until in the mid-fifties abortion was made illegal in virtually all circumstances. The legal landscape changed again over 20 years ago when the Irish Supreme Court decided that women had a constitutional right to an abortion where there was “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother. The Supreme Court decision came in response to the case of “X,” who, as a February 2012 article in the New York Times pointed out, was a 14-year-old girl prevented from leaving the country to have an abortion after she became pregnant from rape. After that decision, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report:
abortion [in Ireland remained] legally restricted in almost all circumstances, with potential penalties of penal servitude for life for both patients and service providers, except where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger.
In its 1992 decision, the Irish Supreme Court also required the government to clarify the conditions under which a legal abortion might take place.
Nonetheless, as we reported in December 2011, Human Rights Watch found that 20 years later: