Pro-Choice supporters hold placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on July 10, 2013 during a demonstration ahead of a vote to introduce abortion in limited cases where the mother's life is at risk. The bill follows a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ireland failed to implement properly the constitutional right to abortion where a woman's life is at risk. Photo: PETER MUHLY
DUBLIN - A young woman who was refused an abortion despite claiming to be suicidal and protesting with a hunger strike has had her baby delivered by cesarean section in a case that has reignited the controversy over a relatively new Irish law that allows for abortion in limited circumstances.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons and is not an Irish citizen, sought an abortion early this summer under a clause in the new Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, saying that she was suicidal, according to Irish media reports.
In July 2013, Parliament legalised the termination of pregnancies in cases when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide over a pregnancy. The law took effect in January, and the woman’s case is believed to be the first such one under the legislation.
The case was referred to a panel of three experts - an obstetrician and two psychiatrists. The psychiatrists determined that she had suicidal thoughts, but the obstetrician declared that the fetus was viable and that it should be delivered.
After her request for an abortion was rejected, the woman began a brief hunger strike, refusing food and liquids, but eventually agreed to a cesarean section nearly 25 weeks into her pregnancy after health officials began legal proceedings to forcibly hydrate her. The baby is reported to be healthy and is expected to be taken into state care.
The case was first reported Saturday in The Irish Independent, and more details emerged over the weekend. The newspaper said that she claimed to have been the victim of a rape, but that it could not confirm the allegation. Another newspaper, the Irish edition of The Sunday Times, also reported that the woman had been raped, based on interviews and assertions by defense lawyers during court proceedings related to the case.
A court order prohibits the full details of the woman’s circumstances from being reported.
The new law does not allow abortions in cases of incest, rape, fetal abnormality or when there is no prospect of survival outside the womb. Abortion-rights advocates say that means that thousands of Irish women will still be forced to leave the country for abortions.
The woman’s legal status in Ireland may have prevented her from traveling to England, which is the preferred option for thousands of Irish women seeking abortions every year. In 2013, 3,679 women with addresses in the Republic of Ireland and 802 from Northern Ireland had abortions in England, according to official figures from the British Department of Health.
The actual figures, however, are likely to be higher given that many women who travel from Ireland give local British addresses.
Domestic and international outrage over the case of Savita Halappanavar, an Irish resident of Indian origin who died of septicemia after she was repeatedly refused an abortion in a Galway hospital in October 2012 despite being told that she was having a miscarriage, pressed Ireland to modify its restrictive abortion law. But those who favor more liberal rules on abortion have argued that the new law does not go far enough.
In July, the chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Nigel Rodley, criticized Ireland’s abortion law and told Irish government representatives that women were being treated as mere ‘‘vessels.’’
‘‘Life without quality of life is not something many of us have to choose between and to suggest that, regardless of the health consequences of a pregnancy, a person may be doomed to continue it at the risk of criminal penalty is difficult to understand,’’ Rodley said.
‘‘Even more so regarding rape when the person doesn’t even bear any responsibility and is by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more.’’
The National Women’s Council of Ireland posted a message on Twitter on Sunday saying that the refusal to permit an abortion in the recent case was ‘‘barbaric.’’
But Ruth Cullen, a spokeswoman for the Pro Life Campaign, said that the case highlighted the ‘‘horror and deep-seated flaws’’ in the government’s legislation and that it would create a backlash against the changes made last year.
‘‘To put a defenseless baby through all this, and to pretend the intervention is medically indicated when it is known that there is no evidence to back it up, is a chilling aberration of law and medicine,’’ Cullen said. ‘‘The fact that the panel could just as easily have sanctioned an abortion in this case also brings home everything that is wrong about the new law.
‘‘The government successfully packaged the law as a lifesaving measure even though it is nothing of the sort. Although it is going to take time, as more and more people begin to realise what the law actually provides for, support for it to be repealed will grow and grow.’’
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said that she could not comment on individual cases. But people reading reports of the woman’s case would be concerned for her, she said, adding that she shared that concern.
‘‘We passed legislation earlier this year and we will continue to monitor that legislation to see how it is being implemented,’’ Fitzgerald said.
- New York Times