A hypocritical mess, Ireland fails the abortion test


The hypocritical mess that is Ireland's new abortion law has been well and truly exposed by the new case of the young asylum seeker here who was refused a termination and forced to have a child she did not want.

Her story has polarized the country once again on the issue, with the pro-choice and pro-life sides demonstrating on the streets and saturation coverage of the case in the media. It's an appalling story, as you are probably aware.

A few months ago, in March, the young woman arrived from a foreign country where there is conflict and claimed she had been raped there and some of her relatives murdered. She had no money and no English.

She was taken into the asylum process and put in an accommodation center, where routine medical screening after four days by a public health nurse revealed she was eight weeks pregnant. She was distressed at the news and immediately said she wanted an abortion.

She did not appear to be suicidal at that stage (which might have qualified her for an abortion under the very limited law passed here last year) and so the nurse referred her to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), a non-government agency which provides advice.

In the weeks that followed in April and May she had a series of meetings with IFPA staff. From the beginning it was explained to her that she would have to go to the U.K. for the abortion she wanted because she did not qualify here.

Because of her situation she would need travel papers from the Department of Justice, a visa from the British government, an appointment letter from a U.K. abortion clinic and other documentation, all of which could take weeks to organize. She would also need around £1,500 to cover the cost of travel and the abortion.

The IFPA is legally prevented from paying such costs and the young woman was told – all through an interpreter – that she could apply to a community welfare officer here for financial help.

Faced with this bureaucratic maze, she became more distressed and at one meeting said she would rather die than have the baby. The IFPA contacted the government health service (HSE) nurse who visited her accommodation center to pass on their deep concern about her.

By now she was 15-16 weeks into her pregnancy. At this point she claims that she attempted suicide but was interrupted.

In June she moved to an accommodation center in another area, perhaps hoping for a better response. The original professionals she had been involved with lost contact with her.

By early July she was told by a friend that to get an abortion in Ireland because of suicide risk, the first step was to be seen by a GP. The doctor she saw referred her to a hospital where a psychiatrist was so concerned about her that she was admitted.

A few days later, after another scan, she was told that she was 24 weeks pregnant. To qualify for an abortion because of suicide risk under the new law passed here last year – the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act – an assessment by a panel of two psychiatrists and one obstetrician has to be carried out. Both psychiatrists deemed her suicidal but the obstetrician decided that the baby might be viable and so a Caesarian section or induction should be carried out instead of an abortion.

When told that an abortion was not now possible, she reacted by refusing to eat or drink for several days – she did this twice – leading the HSE to apply to the High Court for permission to hydrate her. Eventually, around a week and a half after her assessment, she gave in and agreed to have a Caesarian, although she continued to say that what she really wanted was an abortion. Another High Court hearing approved this course of action.

Earlier this month, when she was 25 weeks and six days into her pregnancy, she had the Caesarian section. The baby was taken into intensive care – where it still is – and a week later the woman was discharged from hospital and is being given ongoing psychiatric care. The baby remains in the care of the state.

The above account is a brief outline of the full story, which included various other people and agencies. Most of the detail comes from the only interview the anonymous woman has given, which you can find on the Irish Times website.

It is her side of the story, but what is clear is that our new legislation and the way it is supposed to work failed completely in this case.

The unfortunate woman was faced with a system in which no one seemed to want to take charge of her case. She was shunted around until she was at an advanced stage in her pregnancy.

And when the system did come to a decision she was then told it was too late for an abortion. An official investigation is now underway.

The case has prompted very emotive language from both sides of the debate. The pro-choice side say that the woman was effectively raped twice, once in her home country and then in Ireland, since she was forced to have a rape baby she did not want and had begged for an abortion.

The pro-life side have talked about the denial of the child's rights since it was taken from the womb at such a dangerously early stage.