Over a year and a half after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, has anything changed, or are women in Ireland still handed a death sentence?
(TW: miscarriage, abortion)
Many of you will remember Savita Halappanavar, the Indian citizen who was working as a dentist in Ireland who had an untimely death at age 31. She was 17 weeks pregnant on October 21st, when she began having symptoms of an inevitable natural miscarriage. She began requesting an abortion soon after being admitted, and was refused on the grounds that “Ireland is a Catholic country.” On October 23rd, she collapsed, her body ravaged with septicemia exacerbated by her cervix being dilated for 48 hours while she was fighting a bacterial infection. Fetal remains were removed on October 24th after the fetal heartbeat officially stopped, but it was too late. Savita died on October 28th, 2012.
Her death brought international attention to the abortion law in Ireland, and many pro-choice groups fought to introduce new abortion legislation. The previous law, Case X, was decided by a court in 1992 and allowed for abortions in the case of life and death. Unfortunately, it was vague and unclear, leading to many medical professionals opting to deny abortions at all times, in fear of prosecution under The Offences Against the Person Act, passed in 1861. It states:
Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life . . .
Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude …
In short, a life sentence for a woman who attempts to obtain an abortion, and definite jail time for anyone who helps. It is no wonder that Savita’s doctors were reluctant to provide a life-saving abortion. In 1983, there was an additional barrier placed: a constitutional ban on obtaining or providing an abortion.
The 2013 legislation that was passed allows for abortion only if a health risk is posed by the pregnancy – many, including myself, had assumed that Ireland’s step forward would be more inclusive, but we were wrong. The current law, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, was signed by President Higgins in July 2013, but the constitutional amendment remains in place. It isn’t enough. It leaves destitute women, women who have chronic health concerns that may not convince the 6 person panel that decides if it is a true health risk, women who have been raped, women who are victims of incest, women who just don’t want a baby – completely unable to obtain a safe, legal abortion.
Living in Ireland, you start to see just how much power the Catholic church has in this country – and they wield their doctrine with an iron fist. The Church still holds claim to many hospitals and most public schools – which is why you can be indiscriminately fired if you are lesbian, gay, trans, or atheist while working for any of these institutions. Though most people in Ireland support the right to abortion when a health risk is present, pro-life groups still gather to protest on O’Connell Street almost every weekend. They have angry “traditional” Catholics, pamphlets with misinformation which suggest that abortion can cause depression and cancer, and 6 year old girls holding up pictures of grisly miscarriages that are passed off as “late term abortions.” I had the fortune to meet some pro-choice counter-protestors, collecting signatures to repeal the anti-abortion 8th amendment and passing out medically accurate pamphlets. I met a young woman in her 20’s, and I asked her why she fights for the right to abortion and if she has encountered any pushback in her personal life as a result.
“All women deserve the right to safe, legal abortion,” she said, “and yeah, we’ve all felt blowback. Sometimes the pro-life protestors will come to our booth and call us murders, baby killers. One time a man was screaming at us that we were Nazis and abortion was the new Holocaust. A woman who was passing by had relatives who died in the Holocaust…she was really upset.”
On average, over 5 thousand Irish women a year travel to the United Kingdom to obtain a privately paid for abortion. Marie Stopes is the largest private provider of sexual and reproductive healthcare in the UK, and as such attracts most Irish women who are seeking an abortion. Their prices start at £464 for the abortion pill (the most common here is a combination of misoprostol and mifepristone), which can be taken up to 9 weeks and 3 days after conception. Under 14 weeks, you can obtain a non-sedated surgical abortion for £464 – if you want to be sedated, the cost jumps to £643. If you are between 14 and 19 weeks, the cost is £845. From 19-24 weeks, with general anaesthetic, the cost is £1958. Factor in the £82 consultation fee, the potential £42 weekend appointment fee, and travel costs (return trip on a ferry from Dublin-Holyhead: £64, return flight from Cork to London: £344, return flight from Belfast – London: £116), the availability of an abortion suddenly becomes a classist option.
I had the privilege to interview Cathie, a woman who is on the front lines of pro-choice activism in Ireland. I asked her why she fights so hard for the cause, why it is such a personal issue for her.
When I was 19, I was living in the UK for a year, and I became, fell, whatever the term is, I got pregnant, and I didn’t want to be pregnant. So I got an abortion – and it was very convenient for me. I went to the doctor, and I got a letter and went to the local hospital. I lived in Scotland. I wish I hadn’t had to do it, but I don’t regret my decision. 7 or 8 years later, I was happy enough to not have big conversations about my abortion and just going about my business. And then this organization, Youth Defense, erected these billboards around the country that said “There is always a better answer – Abortion tears your life apart” and the images were stock photos, one was a fetus at 18 weeks, and the other was a woman crying. I just felt really infuriated by these posters – I mean, there was already no abortion in Ireland, and seeing these posters being erected really frustrated me. They felt really shaming and silencing.
If you are like me, you are probably thinking, “But what about Northern Ireland? That’s part of the United Kingdom, surely they have access to safe and legal abortion!” As I learned during my interview with Cathie, that is not the case:
Well first off, you can’t get an abortion in Northern Ireland. The Marie Stopes clinic there only opened last year, and they only provide abortions under 9 weeks, and only in a severe risk to your health. Even women with fatal fetal diagnosis aren’t permitted to have an abortion in Northern Ireland. That clinic, a lot of people think you can have an abortion in the north, but you can’t – there’s a recent ruling in the UK that women in Northern Ireland are not entitled to abortions on the NHS.
That high court ruling was a result of an October 2012 challenge by a plaintiff, “A,” a 15 year old who had to travel to Manchester in England to obtain an abortion. She and her mother challenged their inability to assert their right to a safe, legal abortion through the NHS (National Health Service). Unfortunately, the high court ruled that even though women in Northern Ireland pay the same taxes into the NHS as women in Great Britain, they were not entitled to an abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act which extended across England, Scotland, and Wales, ensuring a woman’s right to an abortion through 24 weeks of pregnancy, did not reach Northern Ireland.
“They’re all paying taxes into the UK pot for everything, so Northern Irish women contribute to this larger pot, but are refused the same sort of treatment that women in Scotland and England and Wales receive. It’s just ridiculous. So women in Northern Ireland who want access to abortion face the same problems that women in the Republic do,” Cathie told me.
It gets worse if you are a migrant woman who is a visa-national, that is, requiring a visa to even visit the UK. That visa has to be applied for through the UK embassy, takes up to a month to process, and requires a veritable boatload of documentation, including tenancy agreements, rent receipts, registration with the private tenancy board, an employment contract, pay slips, and more.
“If you’re a migrant woman, for example, you won’t have permission to leave Ireland. You don’t even have a choice. You’re not going to get the travel papers to go to the UK, so you’re going to be obliged to order pills and induce your own abortion in Ireland, ” Cathie said. “The most common way of inducing your own abortion would be by ordering misoprostol and mifepristone from Women on Web. It’s the same medicine that women across the world have used to end their pregnancies safely in clinics. In fact, in the UK, the exact same drug will be given to you, the first pill under supervision, and you go home and take the rest yourself.”
These pills are available through the website, Women on Web, and usually require women from Ireland to drive over the border to Northern Ireland to collect the pills. This organization requests €90 as a suggested price, but for women without financial resources there are other options. For women using Google to find a provider of abortion pills, the search results are fraught with websites that shill placebos in place of active medication or never send the pills at all. At Women on Web’s last count, at least 66 websites that show up early in the Google search results are fake providers. For the providers that do send the active pills, they have to make it through the border first – last year, customs officials destroyed almost 500 packs of abortion pills.
With this seemingly hopeless situation, I asked Cathie what we can do to help push through positive changes and affect change in the abortion law in Ireland. What can we do, as European residents, as American citizens, as women?
It’s not enough to just quietly not talk about abortion anymore, we need to openly speak in support of it – or just get back! One of the big things we need to tackle is the stigma that surrounds abortion. If people are able to talk about it with someone they know, that they’re familiar with, someone who isn’t a stranger, and see that abortion doesn’t destroy a woman’s life – it doesn’t give her cancer or prevent her from having more children. If these myths are debunked, and people can see abortion for what it is, maybe they will agree that women should have the right to choose if and when she becomes a bloody parent! It’s hard, because some people see it as a rude topic to bring up – but in Ireland, while you take your time and don’t want to think about it, 12 women a day travel to the UK for an abortion, and that’s just the women that have the means to travel – those who don’t will be ordering their pills from the internet, or worse, you know? So that frustrates me, when people say “Oh, we have plenty of time,” because that’s 5000 women a year!
An estimated 1 in 10 women in Ireland will have an abortion in her life. How many Savitas will there be until there is access to safe, legal abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? Don’t let their lives be in vain – speak up. If you are someone with a little extra in your pocket, please consider donating to the Abortion Rights Campaign.
(Many thanks to the helpful, friendly, and informative ladies that I interviewed – keep fighting!)