21 October 2014

COMMENT: Abortion debate reignited by Galway case

09:43, Fiona Ness

Investigations this week into the death of Savita Halappanavar (31) who died at University Hospital Galway last month of septicaemia after a miscarriage at 17 weeks are now under way.

After being told the baby would not survive, the dentist's husband said requests for a medical termination were refused over a three-day period, because a foetal heartbeat remained.

He said the couple were told as part of the discussions that "this is a Catholic country".

We will see exactly what the inquiries find, but the case has grabbed huge international attention and has again underlined the extraordinary prevarication of successive Irish governments in clarifying through legislation exactly what is - and is not - allowed.

No Irish government has legislated for the substantive issue of abortion after the X Case in 1992, when the Supreme Court decided that a 14-year-old girl, who was pregnant as a result of rape and suicidal, was entitled to have an abortion.

The key point of this decision was that abortion was permissible in a case where there was a real and substantial threat to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother.

Yet twenty years later there is still a lack of legal clarity, as successive governments have preferred to long-finger the issue, rather than face the inevitable controversy which legislating would entail.

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Other cases have emerged in the meantime. The government set up an expert group on abortion, chaired by High Court judge Sean Ryan, to assess how it should react to a 2010 judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the ABC case that found that the human rights of one of the three applicants had been breached. It found that while Ireland was not compelled to offer abortion, there was a lack of clarity on when exactly a woman is entitled to an abortion in Ireland.

In July of this year, Minister of State for Health, Kathleen Lynch, said she did not think the government had a choice but to legislate on abortion - and Labour will now push for this.

However, numerous times over the past year the government said it would take action to give legal certainty to the area of abortion, and then didn't. The report of the expert group on abortion was due to have been completed in July, but was postponed to September, and then put back until after the Children's referendum on November 10th, apparently for fear it would derail the government's Yes campaign. It has finally been delivered to Minister James Reilly, and the government is to consider it.

Irish Medical Council guidelines indicate that if a complication arises where therapeutic intervention is required during pregnancy, doctors are legally allowed to proceed to give treatment, even if there is little hope of the baby surviving as a result.

The medical profession are duty bound to protect the life of the mother while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby.

In the case of Savita Halappanavar, the key questions surround the treatment she was given, the decisions that were made and why they were made.

The fact of abortion in Irish society remains. British government's statistics show that the abortion rate among women in their early thirties has risen by 10 per cent in the past two years. And Britain is still the most popular destination for Irish women seeking abortions. In 2010, a poll by the Irish Examiner found that 10 per cent of women in the 18- to 35-year-old age group had been in a relationship where abortion took place.

This looks unlikely to change, as legislation - if it comes - will be related to when and where abortions should be allowed in relation to threats to the mother. In the wake of the Galway case, however, the abortion debate has been reignited and the government is now under pressure to respond.

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