After Halappanavar: abortion in the UK and Ireland

Have we gone too far when it comes to abortion; or not far enough?

It was less than a year ago that the world was shocked by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in the Republic of Ireland. The dentist – originally from India – contracted septicaemia whilst pregnant and was denied a termination; reportedly being reminded that Ireland is ‘a Catholic country’. Even though the chances of her miscarrying were practically definite, Irish doctors believed that –under the law at the time – they must put the welfare of her unborn foetus before her own life. The uncertain and archaic state of Irish abortion law was heavily criticised in the wake of Halappanavar’s death with many calling for change.

Said ‘change’ took pace in the form of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. It enables abortions to be carried out in the ambiguous circumstance where there is a direct risk of death to the mother or a risk of the mother contemplating suicide. Despite uproar from the pro-life side of the debate, the legislation is virtually a duplicate of what came before it. Abortion is still viewed as something shameful and wrong. A woman’s right to choose is still trumped by the life of her unborn baby in the vast majority of situations (including rape, foetal abnormalities, potential health risks – to name just a few).

One would expect that things would differ in Northern Ireland; it is part of the UK after all. Unfortunately, when it comes to abortion law, the North has more in common with its Republic neighbour than we may think. Only last week, the case came to light of a Northern Irish woman forced to travel to England in order to access an abortion. The woman in question was told that her baby had foetal abnormalities and would inevitably pass away. Like the counties in the South, however, foetal abnormalities alone are not grounds for an abortion in Northern Ireland. The woman must continue to carry the baby until it passes away inside of her.

Anti-abortion campaigners have recently made much of clinics in England performing abortions based on the gender of the unborn child. Yes, there are people who would abort a foetus based on the gender. But for all the ill-informed outrage, it is the mental distress of the woman concerned that determines whether or not an abortion can lawfully be performed. Hardly abortion ‘on demand’ even in the UK.

There are many reasons why a woman might want an abortion. Maybe she is a student who is not ready to be a parent? Or a mother already who cannot provide for another young child? The fundamental point is that women in Ireland continue to be denied the right to bodily integrity, especially those who do not have the resources to travel and access an abortion elsewhere. This is not to suggest that abortion is pleasant. Of course it’s not. Sometimes, however, it is necessary.

Written by Anna Carnegie. The Social Policy Forum challenges social policy by stealth in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor