Frontpage Forensics

Law and order from the couch

Time to Terminate Abortion Laws in Ireland

Exceptions for maternal well-being need consideration

I moved to Dublin and stayed there throughout the roar of the “Celtic Tiger.” The booming economy, immigrant influx, and advancements in science and technology, all dispelled my childhood memories of Ireland being a quiet country with provincial attitudes. We were all so diverse and the once insular nation pulsated to the thrilling beat of possibility and change.

Rebellion and peace; growth and collapse; hope and frustration, their fleeting presence and quick interchange have daunted Ireland for centuries. Perhaps this contributes, if only in part, to the country’s need to retain at least one unwavering part of its identity.

It was during my Obstetrics and Gynecology rotation in medical school, when I came to fully appreciate the staunch Catholicism of the country.

Abortion is a criminal offense in Ireland. They have the strictest abortion laws in Europe and very recently, proposed changes to legislation to decriminalize abortion has stoked furious debate.

Ireland's constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling found it should be legalized for situations when the woman's life is at risk from continuing the pregnancy.

This exception was not put into practice at the University Hospital Galway on Oct. 28, 2012, however, and might have had a role in the death of 31-year-old, Savita Halappanavar.  

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I was not involved in Savita's care, and am not participating in court proceedings, so my knowledge of the case comes from public reports.  Reportedly, Savita, originally from India, was 17 weeks pregnant when she experienced severe pain requiring hospitalization. At that time, she and her husband were informed that she was miscarrying, and the fetus was definitively going to die.

Waiting for the miscarriage to complete, Savita’s own health was failing too, and she pleaded for a termination to hasten the process. Doctors refused since there was still a detectable fetal heartbeat.

Despite the 1992 Supreme Court ruling, governments since have refused to pass backing legislation because of strong anti-abortion sentiment.

International arguments over Savita’s death have sparked large public protests on both sides of the abortion debate. A formal inquest has begun this spring in Ireland, which will hear testimony from 16 hospital staff and several medical experts, seeking to identify flaws in Savita’s care, and to rule whether an abortion might have saved her life.

Currently, the vast bulk of Irish women wanting abortions, an estimated 4,000 per year, simply travel next door to England, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1967. But that option is difficult, if not impossible, for women in failing health.

Ireland’s abortion stance is unyielding and deeply rooted in a complexity of issues. Savita’s case is nothing short of a complete tragedy and the exploding controversy it created could finally put pressure the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to reform abortion law and allow for terminations in Irish hospitals when a woman's life is at risk.


“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”

-James Joyce



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Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School. She researches forensic psychiatry and violence.


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