Tue Nov 13, 2012

The Long Shadow of the X-Case

The Irish Times reports the death of a 31 year-old woman last month in Galway, as a result of being denied an abortion:

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination. This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”. She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped. The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

A statement from Galway Pro-Choice notes, in part:

Under the X Case ruling, women in Ireland are legally entitled to an abortion when it is necessary to save their life. However, legislation has never been passed to reflect this. It is the failure of successive governments to do so that led to Savita’s death. … Rachel Donnelly, Galway Pro-Choice spokesperson stated: “This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences. As the European Court of Human Rights ruled, as long as the 1861 Act remains in place, alongside a complete political unwillingness to touch the issue, pregnant women will continue to be unsafe in this country.”

In 1992 I was in my second year of college, at UCC. Beginning early in that year a string of social and political crises and scandals broke that, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the end of the public power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, especially with respect to sexuality. I’ve written before about how the events of that year are a kind of bookend to the autumn of 1979, when the Pope came to Ireland and the country was filled with a revivalist fervor focused on the country’s youth. Chief amongst the social crises of 1992 was the X-case. A fourteen year-old girl, pregnant as the result of rape by a neighbor, sought to leave the country to have an abortion in England, as thousands of Irish women did and still do. Her parents asked the police whether it would be possible to collect any DNA evidence during this process, which brought the matter to the Attorney General’s attention. He sought, and was granted, a court injunction preventing her from traveling for the abortion under Article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution, which had been passed in 1983 as the “Pro-Life amendment” and which prohibited abortion in Ireland. The resulting constitutional crisis saw the Supreme Court issue a hasty ruling permitting the girl to travel, but under a strained interpretation of the law. So in November of 1992 the Government introduced three new amendments meant to clarify things. The result was that things reverted much to the status quo ante, which essentially allowed Ireland to export its abortion problem to the United Kingdom while leaving it unclear what doctors facing a medical emergency during pregnancy were in a position to do.

And so things have stood, more or less. When I followed the X-case in 1992, and when I wrote an MA Thesis about it in 1994, I honestly thought that some minimal legal provision for abortion in Ireland would be fairly soon in coming. But that was twenty years ago.