Catch 22 for Irish abortion law - navigating Ireland’s rigid, Catholic influence legal framework and Savita Halappanavar’s case


Savita was taken to surgery but she delivered spontaneously and the fetus was already dead.  But by then it was too late.  She was in septic shock, her organs had begun to fail and intensive care failed to save her.

Some of the details of the story were truly shocking, particularly the symptoms that were missed by nurses, doctors and the consultant, for example the falling blood-pressure readings that the nurses saw and noted but did not communicate to a doctor, the inadequate antibiotics Savita was given even when it was realized she was seriously ill, the failure of one doctor to tell the consultant about a discharge that would have prompted earlier intervention, and so on.  

Most shocking of all, of course, was the refusal to give Savita the termination she requested.  That is the fundamental point in all of this.

Aware that her fetus would not survive, in pain and sensing that her body was not feeling right, Savita requested a termination.  If she had been granted a woman's right to choose, this one fact transcends all the arguments.  If she had been allowed to choose, she would be alive today.

You will be aware that the legal situation here on abortion depends on a Supreme Court decision in the 1980s (after the X-case) which upheld the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn, but said that abortion is permissible when there is "a real and substantial risk to the life" of a woman instead of just to her health.

The Supreme Court implied that it was up to the Dail (Parliament) to legislate for the detail of this, but our gutless politicians never did.  The Irish Medical Council issued guidelines for doctors, but these did not go much further than the Supreme Court phrase about "a real and substantial risk" to the life of the woman.

Basically individual doctors were left by themselves to interpret what this meant in day-to-day situations.  And since the vast majority of Irish women who want an abortion go to the U.K. to get one (at least 4,000 a year) this was not a huge problem.

Except in crisis situations.  In these situations, the fact that we do not have abortion in Ireland can be deadly, as we have seen in the case of Savita.

The present government has promised to take action.   Proposed legislation is supposed to come before the Cabinet this week.  But there are already signs of deep divisions between and within the coalition parties on the issue.

The Savita case may yet change Ireland. But it unlikely to change it very much. All the signs are that when (or if) we do get abortion here it is likely to be extremely restrictive. Whether it will prevent another Savita happening remains to be seen.

The most senior doctor to give evidence at the inquest, the head of one of the biggest maternity hospitals in the country, said that under the present legal framework Savita could not be given a termination on the Monday and Tuesday.  By the time she could be given one, on the Wednesday, it was too late to save her because the sepsis was too advanced.  It's the deadly Catch-22 of Irish abortion legislation.

How do you measure what is a "substantial" risk.  How serious does it have to be before it qualifies as substantial? And how much right has a woman to decide how much risk she wants to take?

In Ireland, a woman has no such right.  She has to lie there while the legal framework inspired by a lot of Catholic celibate males takes its course.

As Praveen, Savita's husband, said after the inquest, if she had known how rigid our system is she would have jumped out of bed and run from the hospital.