Members of anti-abortion groups demonstrating in Dublin last year
The headlines were slightly misleading, to say the least. “Ireland to legalise abortion” was always going to be a big story, particularly since the country’s existing legislation is the strictest in Europe, but closer examination would reveal that there was more to it than that. Since 1983, the country has held five referendums on legalising termination, but it took the death of a young woman and her family’s heartbreak to provoke real action.
When Savita Halappanavar died in October 2012, pro-choice groups and an outraged public demonstrated in her name. Savita had arrived at hospital complaining of back pain and was found to be miscarrying, but was repeatedly denied a termination because doctors could still detect a foetal heartbeat. Instead of medical intervention, Savita was compelled to endure a painful and distressing miscarriage. Her condition worsened over several days, and by the time her doctors could no longer detect a foetal heartbeat, she was already gravely ill with septicaemia.
Pressure from Savita’s family, from pro-choice and feminist groups, and from Irish citizens provoked several enquiries and many authorities seemed sure that her case would lead to a significant reassessment of Ireland’s abortion laws. As it transpires, the much-vaunted “legalisation” is instead a clarification and empowerment of existing statute, allowing women to seek abortion if their physical or mental health would be significantly imperilled by continuing the pregnancy. The Telegraph explains:
“The Irish Supreme Court declared in 1992 that terminations were legal in limited circumstances. The Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in Ireland where there was a risk to the mother’s life – for example, a risk of suicide. But opposition from religious groups meant that ruling was never implemented.”
The change is expected to legalise abortion for women who are feeling suicidal, but not for women who have fallen pregnant as a result of rape or sexual abuse. The original 1992 decision was based on a landmark Irish legal case in which a pregnant 14-year-old sought access to termination in the UK and had become suicidal when denied the right to travel, and it was the girl’s suicidality, not her rape, that became the focus of the case.
For women with a history of mental illness, falling pregnant is often a time of conflicting feelings and concerns about the future. Like so many women, they may worry that they will be unable to bond with or care for the baby, or that their illness will result in them losing custody of their child. Some may worry that post-natal depression will worsen their condition, exacerbating all their other concerns. Some may be in difficult personal situations that the arrival of a baby would only make worse. Any number of personal circumstances can conspire to make a situation which would compel a woman to seek termination.
While we would never suggest that people affected by mental illness make bad parents, it’s easy to see how someone affected by mental ill-health would worry about what it would mean for their child. In this situation, any pregnant woman worrying about her future should be able to access impartial advice and weigh up the options available to her – options which should allow her to exercise freedom and autonomy over her own body and her own future. The Irish decision, if enforced correctly, should open up another option to women who were historically denied it. It’s not an easy decision for any woman, or any medical professional, to make, but at last the women of Ireland have an opportunity to prevent further tragedy.
Written for the blog by Christie Louise Tucker and you can read more of her articles on her blog.