Thursday 23 January 2020

Dearbhail McDonald: We need legislation and we need it now

ALTHOUGH it is difficult, our first reaction to the maternal death of Savita Halappanavar - after our heartfelt sympathy to her family - should be restraint.

We simply do not know, at this early stage, what caused the septicaemia (blood poisoning) that led to her death or whether her death could have been avoided even if her unviable foetus had been removed much earlier.

The tragic death of the 31-year-old who “loved children” has, however, ignited a rage that has been reaching boiling point amongst many Irish women (and men) for more than twenty years.

That rage stems, in part, from reports that she and her husband were told that they could not induce her pregnancy because this is “a Catholic country”.

At heart, though, the underlying societal rage stems from the inexcusable failure by successive governments to clarify when women in Ireland can avail of medical abortions in the limited circumstances that our law permits since the landmark 1992 X case.

As a result of the X case, abortion is permissible in Ireland if it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life - as distinct from the health - of the mother which can be avoided only by the termination of the pregnancy.

But no government has ever introduced laws to give effect to the ruling and there is no means for any woman to clarify whether she qualifies for a medical termination under X.

Not one.

There has, since, been a heartbreaking alphabet soup of cases brought by distraught women in Ireland and before the European Court of Human Rights.

What those women sought, when they threw themselves at the mercy of judges, was clarity of the law post-X.

Two years ago, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that Ireland's failure to implement the existing constitutional right to a lawful abortion in Ireland when a woman's life is at risk is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The definitive ruling in the A,B,C case prompted the Government to set up an expert group to recommend options available to the State to implement the judgment.

Those recommendations landed on the desk of Minister for Health James Reilly last night.

Were they too late for Savita Halappanavar?

We simply do not know.

But for God’s sake, legislate now, even in this Catholic country.

Dearbhail McDonald is Legal Editor of the Irish Independent

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