How seven successive governments have failed to protect women

Recently, a 31-year-old woman who was 17 weeks pregnant arrived at a hospital and was found to be miscarrying. As her husband later described, she spent two and a half days in agony; in excruciating pain, vomiting and continually passing out. She knew that miscarriage was inevitable but had her repeated requests for a termination denied.

Her requests were denied because staff could hear a faint foetal heartbeat. She was allegedly told "this is a Catholic country" and her pleas only stopped when the foetal heartbeat stopped and she was taken to intensive care unit. She later died from complications arising from septicaemia and E.coli.

There are many horror stories told by women who've been denied access to terminations. Australian woman Anne Summers recently shared how she and others risked their lives to access a termination. From what I took away a sense of how lucky we are to live in an age and a country where we are freely able to exercise this autonomy over our bodies in a safe environment.

However, the woman mentioned at the beginning of this article is not an example of how things used to be. Savita Halappanava, a dentist from the Republic of Ireland, died on October 28 because abortion is outlawed in Ireland.

Halappanava lived in a developed nation (which was for a while one of the European Union's most prosperous members), in the 21st century, and yet she suffered through something that for most women in the developed world is something we read about to caution us on how things used to be -– and how they should remain.

Abortion has always been illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Legislation outlawing abortion in Ireland dates back to 1861 when it was still part of the United Kingdom, even after the Irish gained independence from the UK. In 1957, an Irish midwife named Mamie Cadden was hanged after a performing a failed abortion on a patient, and still to this day Irish law states that procuring an abortion is a crime punishable by life imprisonment.

In 1983, the Constitution of Ireland was amended to ban abortion. This left Irish women with the option of travelling to the UK to seek a legal and safe termination. In 2011, 6,515 Irish women travelled to the UK to have a termination at an estimated cost of between 400 and 2000 pounds for travel expenses and private clinic fees.

Even if a woman decides to travel to the UK, the Irish government can try and intervene to stop her from leaving the country. In 1992, a 14-year-old girl became pregnant after being raped by her neighbour. Medical specialists reported she was suicidal, and the girl requested an abortion, which meant her family had to take her to the UK. The Attorney-General at the time sought an injunction to prevent her from having the termination carried out.

While the injunction was granted by the High Court, it was later overturned by the Supreme Court which ruled that a woman had a right to an abortion if there was a "real and substantial risk" to her life. In this instance, the possibility of suicide was enough of a risk but the nature of the ruling meant that the right did not extend to a woman whose health, but not necessarily life, was at risk.

The reason these anachronistic laws are still in place is because seven successive governments have refused to enact legislation to protect Irish women. There has been zero progress towards decriminalising abortion in the Republic of Ireland. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Ireland enact legislation to back up the Supreme Court decision and the Irish government Is due to give a response at the end of this month.

Previously, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has stated that abortion law reform is not a priority. He deemed Halappanava's death a "tragic case, where we have a woman who lost her life, her child is lost and her husband is bereaved" . But the fact remains that because his government and his predecessors have refused to put abortion on its agenda, a woman died a slow, agonising and unnecessary death because Ireland remains a "Catholic country".

It needs to be explained how Halappanava's death is being seen as being a "tragic case", rather than a horrific wake-up call to the Republic of Ireland about its failure to protect Irish women, or to provide them with a right that many women in neighbouring countries were granted decades ago. Religious conviction is standing in the way of Irish women having autonomy over their bodies.

No woman should even have to imagine the agony and indignity of Halappanava's final days, but until the Irish government can step away from anachronisms and denial and work toward protecting the rights of Irish women through abortion law reform, this story remains a very sobering and terrifying reality for women in Ireland. Halappanava deserved better, and Irish women deserve better than to have a government which does not see their safety and wellbeing as being a priority.

Keshia Jacotine

Keshia Jacotine is an Australian-based researcher and writer focusing on international relations and the European Union.

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