Ireland today is expected to publish legislation that finally enables women in need of an abortion to avail of the procedure in the Republic of Ireland instead of travelling overseas. In Ireland, as in most countries abortion is a hugely divisive issue but one the Irish public generally side with when it comes to desperate situations like that of Savita Halappanaver, the Indian woman who died in Irish hospital last year after being denied an abortion.
The death of Savita caused consternation and outrage in Ireland as previously the Irish in 1983 had voted in a referendum that granted equal legal status to a foetus and the mother. Debatably abortion is legally permissible in limited cases when there is a substantial threat to the life of the mother. A supreme court finding in 1992 found that if there is a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life by continuing with her pregnancy then abortion is permissible. Further referendums were carried out in 1992 and 2002 where the threat of suicide by a pregnant woman was ruled out as a ground for an abortion. Since 1983 successive Irish governments have failed to legislate for abortion in certain circumstances and thus a legal grey area has existed until now.
The tragic case of Savita Halappanaver shun the spot light on Irelands’ head-in-the-sand approach to what most opinion polls carried out in Ireland regard as a right of women. Proximity to the United Kingdom and mainland Europe has always acted as a safety valve for the country in all aspects of life. The Irish tend to travel a lot in times of trouble (take the current exodus of unemployed young people fleeing the oppressive economic crisis there at the moment). Abortion is no exception. All too easily Irish governments have been able to shirk their responsibility and rely on the Nation Health Service in the United Kingdom to deal with a problem they refused to address. Todays expected legislation is a watershed moment in the country’s on-going struggle to throw off oppressive social, cultural and religious mores imposed by centuries of Catholic hegemony and a clear awakening of Ireland’s responsibility to help its own people.
No doubt the pro-life lobby world over will react to the legislation with outrage and further lobby to make what is clearly a difficult decision for most women who have abortions even more difficult. In recent months automated phone calls have been made to Irish people telling of the evils of abortion. These ‘robo’ calls have been found to be coming from outside of the jurisdiction – the United States. Ireland’s economic sovereignty may be in question at the moment but its governance of its own social issues opens a whole other can of worms.
The fever that abortion excites in the pro-life and pro-choice camps is understandable. For Pro-lifers this is particularly the case with ever improving technological advances that allow us to visualise the foetus in utero and enable ever more premature babies to live outside the womb. For the Pro-choice camp the hard-to-argue-with mantra of one’s body one’s choice is as always relevant. Abortion is not an issue the two sides can ever agree to disagree on.
Most pertinent to the current debate in Ireland is that it is Ireland that is finally taking the reigns over one of its own most pressing issues. Instead of passing its problems off to its nearest neighbours and hoping the problem will go away the government is finally taking the necessary action. This is a huge moment in Irish history and a huge moment for anyone who believes they have the right to decide the course of their own life.