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.
An expert obstetrician here has said that such a baby faces enormous challenges, will need intensive care for a lengthy period and may suffer permanent consequences. The costs involved in this case will be substantial.
The woman was in hospital for several weeks, the ongoing intensive care of the baby will cost around €100,000, there were two secret High Court hearings related to the case, and there are a number of doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers who have to be paid, in addition to the usual costs of dealing with an asylum seeker.
It may seem callous to mention money in such an upsetting case, but at the end of the day the taxpayer here has to meet the bill.
There is also the question of where the young woman is from and how she got here. The reference to a conflict area may indicate an African or Middle Eastern country. If that is the case it is almost certain that she will have passed through other countries on her way here, including countries with direct air links like France, Germany, Holland and the U.K., all of whom have "liberal" abortion regimes.
Given at least the possibility that she might be pregnant, her decision to come here therefore seems surprising. She could have applied for asylum – and an abortion – in any of the countries mentioned.
It is possible, of course, that she thought Ireland was a "normal" country. Whatever the full story, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for her, given what she faced with no money, no English, and a system which could not help apart from offering her "advice."
Of course this is a very exceptional case because of the complications caused by the woman's status and therefore should not be taken as a guide to how our new legislation is going to work in practice.
Media reports here have said that this is, in fact, the first case in which a woman has sought an abortion on suicide risk grounds since the law was passed last year. That in itself, reveals a lot about Ireland and abortion.
We know from U.K. figures that thousands of Irish women have abortions in British clinics every year, and it is reasonable to assume that thousands have continued to do so since our new abortion law was passed last year.
Rather than face the bureaucratic nightmare that is our new system, with its interview panels and so on, Irish women still prefer to pay the money and travel to the U.K. for their abortions. The only ones who will have to face our system are the very poor, including destitute asylum seekers.
That is why this seems to have been the first case here. Even women on welfare here save up or borrow their few euros to get to the U.K. for an abortion.
Nothing has changed. All the trumpeting by our political leaders last year about the new abortion law being a sign of our new maturity here, our new willingness to face up to reality, has now been exposed for what it is: hypocrisy.
Unbelievably, this case has now also exposed the fact that the guidelines on how to implement the new abortion law have not yet been finalized and circulated to doctors and hospitals. The law, for example, does not say exactly at how many weeks of pregnancy an abortion will be refused.
This leads on to the final point raised by this tragic case, and it is not one that has been answered in this debate by the pro-choice lobby, some of whom take the view that it must be always the right of the woman to choose an abortion, right up to the last weeks and days of her pregnancy. This, of course, is unacceptable to most people who recognize that once the baby in the womb is completely viable and can be safely born it does have a right to life and that must be protected.
Where to draw that line – 24 weeks? 28 weeks? Somewhere in between? Earlier? Later? – is the question that is so difficult to answer.
Whatever you do, don't look for answers in Ireland. We're above all that kind of messy stuff.