Abortion debate reignites as law questioned

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

Just over six months after the implementation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, its workability is being called into question following a distressing case in which a young woman was refused an abortion and later delivered her baby by Caesarean section.

And the case has reignited the seemingly interminable and insoluble abortion debate in this country, as yet another 'Irish solution to an Irish problem' is called into question. The focus has now also switched to where it all started back in 1983 - the 'pro-life ' amendment to the Constitution.

The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) has repeated its calls for an immediate referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives equal rights to the life of the mother and the unborn child. A Government junior minister has called for preparations to be made for a further referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.

The woman who sought the abortion was reported to have feared for her life on non-medical grounds and to be suicidal. She was refused an abortion by a panel of three doctors and then went on hunger and thirst strike.

The HSE then sought a care order in court to prevent the woman dying while on hunger and thirst strike. However, the woman, who is not an Irish national, then consented to have the baby delivered.

The obstetrician on the expert panel had proposed that the baby be delivered as the woman was far enough into her pregnancy to do so. The baby was born at around 25 weeks gestation and is reported to be progressing well.

Rachel Doyle, Head of Outreach at NWCI said once again, Ireland was hitting the headlines for its restrictive abortion laws and a vulnerable woman has been caused immeasurable suffering. "Article 40.3.3 is barbaric and dangerous, creating an unworkable distinction between the life and health of the mother."

"At least 150,000 women have been forced to travel to access an abortion since 1983. Class and control are once again dominant themes in Ireland. Migrant women, women with little or no income, women who are unable to travel and women who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality are disproportionately affected."

Junior Minister Aodhan O 'Riordain said he believed the Constitutional Convention should be recalled to examine the prospect of a referendum during the tenure of the next government.

"We must now lay the grounds for a referendum to potentially repeal the eighth amendment. I think this Government has done as much as we can do within the constraints of the Constitution, we have no mandate to do any more," he told the Irish Independent.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said she was 'concerned' for the woman and baby involved. She said that the new abortion legislation, whichis only in opertion for six months, would be monitored by the Government.

The Pro-Life Campaign has said the case highlighted the 'horror and deep-seated flaws' in the new abortion legislation.

It said to induce a pregnancy at such an early stage inevitably put the baby at risk.

The Campaign said the fact that the expert panel in this case could just as easily have sanctioned an abortion also brought home everything that is wrong about the new law.

Further details are beginning to emerge about the case, which is reported to be the first test of the new abortion legislation.

It was reported that the woman may have become pregnant as a result of being raped, but this has not been confirmed.

It was also reported in the Irish Times today that the woman first asked for a termination when she was eight weeks pregnant, and not after three months as has been initially reported.

The case has rekindled the pro-life/pro-choice debate which raged in 2012 and 2013 over the enactment of limited abortion legislation.

However, the particular circumstances of the case has raised issues over whether the current legislation is equipped to deal with the type of difficult scenarios under which a panel of doctors must make termination decisions under the new law and clinical guidelines relating to it.

For example, the current provisions are vague on the issue of a time limit on the age of the fetus in relation to a termination being considered and on the issue of early delivery, as opposed to actual termination.

The case also highlights continuing doubts expressed by mental health experts and those opposed to abortion over the issue of suicidality and how this is decided upon when a termination is requested.

There will be inevitable concerns too about the delays between the time the woman reportedly first sought information about an abortion and when a decision was made on whether or not to sanction a termination, and the subsequent delivery.

The circumstances of the case make for stark and distressing reading - a young pregnant woman outside her home country under terrible mental strain, feeling her life was in danger, then refused a termination although two psychiatrists agreed that she had suicidal thoughts. Then a hunger strike, and eventually a caesarean section at 25 weeks.

In this case, unlike the Savita case, mother and baby are thankfully still alive, but that does not mean questions must not be asked about the effectiveness of the current legal and medical system in dealing with such cases.

The baby in this case, having been born very prematuerely, may grow up with some significant health problems.

Prior to the passing of the eighth amendment in 1983, abortion was illegal in Ireland under 19th century legislation.

At the time, some queried whether the amendment was necessary. Now people are calling for its repeal.

Ironically, the amendment paved the way, following the X case, for the techical legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances.

Now, after 30 years of fevered debate, legal argument and legislative to-ing and fro-ing, has the way our health service and society looks after pregnant women in distress improved all that much compared to prior to 1983?

To be fair, the new law probably provides greater protection for the life of the mother than before, but many would argue that this is by no means guaranteed, and that in any case the health of the mother in crisis situations is not protected properly.

And as regards when a termination is permitted, are clinicians any clearer on how they should act, particularly in 'hard cases'?

A cynic would argue that we have for some time had a very effective way of potentially dealing with these cases - taking a plane to London.

Any other young and vulnerable pregnant woman seeking help, on reading the details of the latest case, may be very reluctant to throw herself at the 'mercy' of the Irish State's newly-endowed functions for dealing with crisis pregnancies.

In the current tragic case, the baby is now expected 
to be taken into care by the State. The mother, while physically well, is reported to have undergone considerable emotional distress.

In the meantime, interest groups and politicians will continue to debate whether, after all the debate and argument over the past 30 years, and after the fall-out from the Savita case, our abortion laws are yet fit for purpose.

Woman refused abortion under new law



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