When a pregnant 31-year-old named Savita Halappanavar was suffering from severe pain, her husband, Praveen, rushed her to Galway University Hospital, Ireland. After being sent home following an initial examination, Savita returned to the emergency room a few hours later. At this point, Savita was told she was going to miscarry her baby. As Savita was in severe pain, the couple asked for the pregnancy to be terminated upon hearing this news. But they were told, “unfortunately, it is a Catholic country, and when the fetus is still alive, you’re not able to terminate it.” Savita miscarried three days later, by which time she was in a critical condition herself after suffering from extensive, excruciating pain. She never recovered, and, to the dismay of her family, Savita died from blood poisoning and infection seven days after first being rushed to hospital.
Following public outrage over Savita’s case, an inquest was held. A friend of Savita’s, Mrudula Vasealli, told the inquest that a midwife at the hospital said, despite it being clear that the baby would not survive, they could not terminate the pregnancy because “it’s a Catholic thing.” Indeed, that seems to be the case. In 1983, Catholic lobbyists ensured Ireland’s constitution was amended to give full human rights to an embryo from the point of conception. Currently, however, following years of child abuse and pedophile priest scandals, the Catholic Church’s reputation in Ireland is weakening—despite over 80 percent of Irish still identifying as Roman Catholic.
In 2010, the Church’s role in the abortion debate seemed to diminish as a landmark ruling in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) required Ireland to clarify when an abortion may be performed to save the mother’s life. However, successive Irish governments have failed to implement legislation, leading both to cases like Savita’s occurring and to Irish women continuing to go to Britain for pregnancy terminations (in 2011, over 4,000 Irish women took this option). It is understandable both that Irish women are having the procedure done in Britain and that doctors in Ireland are reluctant to terminate a pregnancy: The criminal penalty for having or assisting in an unlawful abortion in Ireland can be life imprisonment.
Public opinion on abortion, Savita’s tragic case, and the ECHR ruling may have finally overcome the Church’s stronghold over abortion in Ireland: Legislation has been drafted in Irish parliament to clarify when an abortion can take place. However, despite the proposed legislation only allowing abortion in specific—and limited—circumstances (for example, a woman, if suicidal and seeking an abortion, would need to have this verified by three separate medical professionals), Irish church leaders uniformly oppose the Bill. Ireland’s Catholic leaders issued a joint-statement that labeled the bill “a dramatic and morally unacceptable change to Irish law.” The Bill permits only two other circumstances than the one mentioned above: a woman would need to see one doctor to authorize an abortion if her life was in immediate danger, and a woman must see two doctors if her pregnancy posed a potentially lethal risk to her. The proposed legislation would not allow a pregnancy to be terminated if a woman has been raped or where the fetus has a fatal abnormality, and the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has unequivocally ruled out this option for Irish women.
It could be argued that the Catholic Church of Ireland is using the abortion debate to avoid criticism regarding its handling of the ongoing child sexual abuse claims it faces. The Church’s most recently appointed bishop, Denis Nulty, spoke at length against the proposed abortion legislation—while only briefly mentioning child abuse in the Church—during his appointment speech on 8 May. But this argument would be unfair: the Catholic Church is as influential on the issue in other countries, too. Despite abortion being legal for victims of rape in Poland (another predominantly Catholic nation), a fourteen-year-old rape victim recently was refused an abortion in two separate cities. In a serious breach of medical confidentiality laws, the girl’s details were posted online in an attempt to publicly shame her and her family. She eventually received an abortion over 500 kilometers from her home, before winning compensation from the Polish government after successfully arguing her case at the ECHR.
Perhaps the Church’s argument against abortion in Ireland can be compared to its lengthy fight against contraception. The Church’s influence ensured the illegality of condoms in Ireland until 1985, when an act ensured they could be bought without a prescription. Although this seems very recent, Kenya’s Roman Catholic Church currently actively discourages condom use, labeling them a threat to Kenya’s “moral fiber”—despite over 1.5 million Kenyans living with HIV. Similarly, ahead of Philippine elections this month, the Catholic Church is actively lobbying against election candidates who advocate contraception, homosexual marriage, divorce, or abortion. As 80 percent of the Philippines 100 million people are Catholic, this could significantly impact election results. The Irish Catholic Church may not have this kind of influence any longer, but it may be able to win this battle over women’s rights. If it does, cases like Savita’s will continue to occur, and every year thousands of Irish women will fly to Britain, which is not bound by Catholic dogma, to seek abortions.