The couple requested that the pregnancy be terminated several times over the 3-day hospital stay. A nurse told them that there was no way they could do anything to end the pregnancy while there was a fetal heartbeat present. The doctors refused to perform an abortion, stating “this is a Catholic country.” Ms. Halappanavar responded that she was "neither Irish nor Catholic," but the hospital staff still refused to act. On the third day, the fetal heartbeat stopped. They tried to treat her, but it was too late. Ms. Halappanavar passed away that evening of septicaemia, a severe infection of the bloodstream. Dr. Kimberly Gecsi, an obstetrician at University Hospital in Cleveland, said "when an infection occurs in a pregnant woman's uterus, the only way to treat it is to terminate the pregnancy." Mr. Halappanavar sadly stated, "[i]t is hard to believe that religion can mean somebody's life."
Abortion is still illegal in Ireland, effectively under all circumstances. It was officially outlawed in 1861. In 1983 voters backed proposals to recognise that a mother and unborn child have equal right to life. In 1992, in a case involving a 14-year-old rape victim referred to as the "X-case", the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortions would be allowed when there was a "real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother." However, in the subsequent 20 years, the Irish Parliament has yet to create legislation to transform this holding into law. To mark the 20th anniversary, left-wing members introduced a bill in the Dáil Parliament to put the holding into action, but it was soundly defeated 109 votes to 20. The Sinn Féin party will introduce another such motion in the Parliament demanding the legislation be written and enacted.
However, the senior partner in Ireland's ruling coalition, Fine Gael, told supporters that the coalition would not introduce new laws allowing abortion during its five-year term, despite pressure from its junior partner Labour to act. 4 out of 5 Irish voters support allowing abortion where the mother's life is at risk. But, much like in the United States, there is a very vocal anti-abortion contingency which supports the prohibition of abortion under all circumstances.
Ireland's abortion prohibition does not stop Irish women from ending their pregnancies. An estimated 4,200 women travel from the Republic to Britain and other European countries each year to end a pregnancy. Irish women have had the right to travel outside the country for an abortion only since 2002. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland violated C, a cancer survivor's, human rights when she was forced to travel to England to get an abortion. The court condemned the failure of Irish leaders to legislate, and said the lack of legislative action has resulted in a "striking discordance between the theoretical right to a lawful abortion in Ireland on grounds of a relevant risk to a woman's life and the reality of its practical implementation."
Clearly the country's Roman Catholic faith still dictates reproductive health policy. Ireland's history of controlling women's reproductive health is disturbing to say the least. But beyond abortion denial lies an even scarier practice of Ireland's recent past: symphysiotomy.
Symphysiotomy involves breaking the pelvic bone to allow a woman to give birth in a difficult pregnancy, for example when the baby is breach. It is the barbaric alternative to a cesarean section. To put it more bluntly, Irish women experienced a doctor PULLING OUT A HACKSAW AND SAWING INTO THEIR PELVIC BONES while they were only under local anesthesia. Then the women, who were still in labor, would have to push the baby out with an unhinged pelvis. A survivor put it this way: “I saw the hacksaw, I know what hacksaws are. [The doctor] started cutting my bone and my blood spurted up like a fountain.” Some of the nurses around her were physically ill. The doctor just looked annoyed that she had gotten blood on his glasses.
Doctors performed symphysiotomies without consent of the women. The women did not know what was happening to them. Until she spoke to her son many years later, one woman who had a symphysiotomy thought she had actually had a cesarean section. The doctors kept women in the dark about the procedure, fueled by motivation from the Catholic Church. As one midwife who worked in the 1950s and 1960s put it, "the big thing was to have children even if you dropped dead." In 1931, the Vatican issued an encyclical which in essence said "Mothers who die in childbirth are martyrs...and should be happy to serve as such." The Catholic Church valued the life of the child over the life of the mother, and Irish doctors followed suit.
Symphysiotomy occurred in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, “in the age of the Beatles” as the Lawyer for the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group puts it. The practice had ceased to be used in France in the late-Eighteenth Century. However, the practice continued in Ireland until 1984, which happens to be the year of my birth. It is absolutely shocking and reprehensible that the general public has not heard of this practice! Marie O’Connor, chairperson of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy, describes symphysiotomy as "arguably the biggest human rights scandal in Ireland since the foundation of the State."
Fortunately, a recently released documentary entitled Mothers Against All Odds details this horrible practice and compares it to the awful treatment of mothers in Kenya today. Over 100 members of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group gathered to watch the documentary in Dublin. They could recognize each other by the limp that resulted from the symphysiotomy. This barbaric procedure mutilated and disabled these women for life, all without their consent. Hopefully, the publicity around the documentary and advocacy by the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group will garner more attention to this atrocious episode in history. You can watch the trailer for the documentary below:
Ireland is a prime example of the dangers of a theocracy in practice. When religion dictates health policy, women are hurt and even killed. The Catholic Church continues to laud women who sacrifice themselves for their unborn child, as evidenced by an article published this year called Emotional goodbye for young Italian mother who died for unborn child published by the Catholic News Agency. This sentiment is dangerous to women everywhere. Savita Halappanavar is not a martyr, but at least her death will not be completely in vain if it results in actual legislation in Ireland to allow abortions where the mother's life in danger. This is not a women's issue or an Irish issue, this is a human rights issue.