Ireland’s knee-jerk reaction to a terrible case of clinical negligence is misguided and wrong. Savita Halappanavar’s death did not equal a nationwide need for lax abortion laws.
Britain is basking in weeks of glorious sunshine and the popular mood is high. The Tour de France has just been won by a Briton for the second year in a row, the Lions thrashed the Aussies Down Under and England are 2-0 up in the Ashes. Media attention of all these sports combined has, however, been eclipsed by the media event of the year. At a hospital in central London, a beautiful woman, two years’ married, has just given birth. She is Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William, known around the world as Kate.
Why the attention? The political significance of the birth is pretty obvious. Her son is now third in line to the British throne after his father and Prince Charles, and will probably become the head of state of Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and 12 other countries, head of the Commonwealth and (less likely) Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Yet that is not the essence of the royal baby fever gripping the media: it is an intensely personal and human story too. The baby is a tiny infant, as we all once were, needing constant care and attention from his parents. His life will be a constant welter of emotion to family, friends – and himself. Because of the role he has inherited, this prince will live out his existence under the unforgiving public eye. This little child is born into an incredibly privileged family, with copious wealth and support, and may he grow up bringing out all he is capable of and drawing the best out of all who know him.
The hope and optimism attached to this life, this new person, is a symbol of what Pope John Paul II called the culture of life. Yet media and public sentiment contrasts starkly to the attitudes of parliamentarians the other side of the Irish Sea.
The death of Savita Halappanavar last October stirred up an impassioned but muddle-headed debate on abortion in Eire. Savita, who was 17-weeks pregnant, died in hospital because of a blood infection that remained undiagnosed for three days after her admission. An inquest into her death concluded overwhelmingly that had Savita had a termination of her child when she asked, it was still extremely unlikely that she would have survived.
Interest groups have long sought the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws, which are amongst the most life-affirming in the world. As the British Catholic Voices blog noted in April, pro-abortion journalists and politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon of Savita’s tragedy, prejudging wrongly the reasons for her death and calling for the lowering of the threshold circumstances in which a termination could occur:
If is indeed true that a termination could have saved Savita’s life, could it have taken place under Irish law? The answer is yes — if it were clear that the pregnancy osed a risk to the life of the mother. But in such cases it is not usually clear (until too late) that a pregnancy poses such a threat, and what determines a clinical decision at that point is not the law but best-interest judgements. You’d think, from what [some prochoice writers] claim, that mothers would often be dying in Ireland when abortions could have saved them. But the opposite is true. A higher percentage of women die in the UK from complications in childbirth than in Ireland. Savita’s death from septicaemia, a week after being admitted to hospital in her 17th week of pregnancy and apparently miscarrying, has elements of scandal — what has come to light is a series of oversights, miscommunications, and errors — but Irish abortion law is not one of them.
Instead, what grew out of Savita’s death was a proposal by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government to amend the laws controlling termination. After several months’ wrangling, the mis-named Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was passed on 11 July. The Bill purports to authorise a termination if doctors deem that a woman is at risk of taking her life. What it actually does is create a law so feebly drafted that – like the supposed ‘safeguards’ in the UK’s Act in 1967 – it will, in practice, give greater freedom to unscrupulous and unthinking clinicians to sanction the ending of an unlived life.
The Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill gives preference to the mother’s life which, at the end of the day, is correct. It is better one than none live in the case of ectopic pregnancies, for instance, where the mother will surely die if gestation continues and no surgical intervention currently exists to save the life of the child also. But the Bill should have made that clear on its face and, in any event, such protections exist already in Irish law.
As Catholic Voices pointed out, there was neither the need nor the appetite (outside the media-political elite in Dublin) for the Bill:
The proposed legislation is unnecessary, is probably unconstitutional, brings into discredit the entire Irish democratic process, and can hardly be justified on any grounds other than political reality, as Ireland’s Labour party, the junior partner in Ireland’s coalition government, is desperate to implement those aspects of its 2011 manifesto that won’t cost any money. But that doesn’t stop advocates of a change in the law advancing a number of tendentious arguments.
The change in the law is particularly unwanted among the Irish people. The numbers of Irish women who have travelled to the UK for termination have declined in real terms by 40% since 2001 and polls have consistently shown a majority in favour of the status quo ante or even tighter controls. Far, far more people turned up to demonstrate against the Bill than for it.
As the rest of the CV post explains, line-after-line, this is the product of the dreary thinking of the coalition government. Incredibly, Fine Gael, which had become the single largest party in the 2011 national elections for the Dail (the lower but principal chamber of the Irish parliament), had reassured voters it was opposed to the legalisation of abortion. Its coalition partners in the Labour Party demanded that a three-line whip should force TDs through the lobbies in support of the Bill, despite the convention that abortion is a conscience issues open to a free vote. Hats off to Lucinda Creighton, Fine Gael’s Europe Minister, who described parliamentarians as “coerced and cajoled into voting for legislation they clearly considered to be faulty and against their better judgment”.
Creighton voted with 30 others against the Bill, which was passed with 127 votes. She subsequently resigned her position and was later expelled from her party for voting against specific sections of the legislation.
The Bill has moved from the assembly to the Senate but it is unlikely to be defeated there. Thus, as the world waits expectantly for a prince to appear and be named in London, in Dublin the heavy pall of death hangs low in the air.