It was only a matter of time.
It’s been nearly two years since news of Savita Halappanavar’s death broke. It’s been eight months since the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was brought into force. The law outlines the labyrinthine process a woman would have to follow in order to get an abortion. It’s been 12 years since the last abortion referendum and 22 years since the X-Case.
It was only a matter of time until Ireland’s incredibly restrictive abortion laws harmed another woman enough to result in public scandal. Earlier this year, a teenage girl arrived in Ireland, seeking asylum. She was horrified to be told that she was about eight weeks pregnant as a result of being raped in the country she came from. She immediately said she wanted an abortion.
They said to me abortion was not legal here, but people like me are sent to England for abortions . . . I asked to go and they said they would have to arrange the documents and that could take six weeks. After that day I hoped they were going to help me. – Ms. Y, interviewed by Kitty Holland for the Irish Times
In the Republic of Ireland, you have a right to leave the country for an abortion and to information about abortion services abroad. If you can’t leave the country, the state is not obliged to help you do so. You cannot get an abortion in Ireland unless your life (not only your health) is threatened by the pregnancy. Risk of suicide (as verified by two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) is considered a threat to your life, and your pregnancy can (according to the law) be terminated at any stage if your life is at risk. However, because of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the equal right to life of the “unborn,” if the fetus is viable, the pregnancy must be terminated in such a way as to preserve the life of the fetus (i.e. induction of labour, or c-section).
Two months later, at sixteen weeks pregnant, Ms Y expressed suicidal intent in a counselling session, and later that day attempted suicide. Two months after that, at about twenty-four weeks pregnant, she saw a GP, who referred her to hospital. She was kept in hospital for two weeks, and she refused food and drink for days when she was told she couldn’t get an abortion.
They said they could not do an abortion. I said, “You can leave me now to die. I don’t want to live in this world anymore.”
The hospital applied for a court order to force-feed her, which was granted but not carried out as she was promised a c-section (which she was told was the only way to legally terminate the pregnancy at that stage). She was released from hospital the week after the surgery, and her baby remains in intensive care.
Ms Y was out of luck on several fronts. She is young — a teenager. She is an asylum seeker, with very few contacts in Ireland who could have supported her. She speaks very little English. And, apparently, she was nobody’s problem. Not the Health Services Executive (HSE), who should have been responsible for her as an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum. Not the IFPA, who she was seeing for counseling.
Everyone agreed that she had a right to travel for an abortion when she said she wanted one, at eight weeks, but nobody helped her to do so. Once she became suicidal at sixteen weeks pregnant, she was legally entitled to an abortion in Ireland, but nobody helped her to get one. When she was finally hospitalised at twenty-four weeks, it was another two weeks before her pregnancy was finally ended, but in the way more likely to cause health problems for her in the future.
I feel I have been left by everybody….I just wanted justice to be done. For me this is injustice.
The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and the resulting Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, have been and will continue to be nightmares for women in Ireland, if they are so lucky as to survive them.
Women with money and resources do what they have always done — go the UK or elsewhere in Europe to get abortions, and pay for the privilege. Women without money still have to get it from somewhere: friends, family, loan sharks, or the sole abortion fund for women in Ireland — the Abortion Support Network in England.
And all that presumes that the woman can actually leave the country. Women like Ms. Y — refugees, asylum seekers, anyone without the correct travel documents to go to England — have still fewer options. The state might help them travel — and it might not. If early enough in the pregnancy, and if they have Internet access and enough literacy to manage it, some women can get early medical abortions through Women on Web. Otherwise, they risk getting drugs from much less reputable sources, they try self-harming to cause a miscarriage (which rarely works), or they stay pregnant. This is riskier for women like Ms Y — women who are not white and/or Irish — as they experience disproportionately higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality in Ireland.
It was only a matter of time: eight weeks, sixteen weeks, twenty-four weeks.
Now we have a young woman traumatised in her home country and further brutalised over months by the Irish state. We have a very premature baby in hospital, in the care of the same state that failed its mother so spectacularly, and that baby is not even entitled to Irish citizenship. We have many more women who are suffering and will suffer because of these laws. We have been promised an inquiry, but the government says there is “no appetite” for a referendum.
Further details about Ms Y and the full interview with her are available here. If you want to help women in Ireland to access abortion, please donate to the Abortion Rights Campaign and/or the Abortion Support Network.