Yesterday, the news broke that the death of a pregnant woman whose husband claims she was denied an abortion at an Irish hospital is being investigated by health authorities. 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, died of septicaemia a week after she presented at University Hospital Galway and was found to be miscarrying.
Her husband Praveen says that, suffering severe pain, she subsequently asked several times for the pregnancy to be terminated, yet that these requests were denied because a foetal heartbeat was still present. After another two and a half days "in agony" the heartbeat was found to have stopped and the foetus was removed. But it was too late for Savita, who was taken to the high dependency unit and then to intensive care. She died on October 28th.
"The consultant said that it was the law, that this is a Catholic country," said Praveen.
This horrific case of medical malpractice has once again raised the issue of abortion law in Ireland - yesterday evening, pro-choice protests took place in London, Dublin (pictured above), and Cork, with a vigil for Savita being held in Galway itself.
Technically, it is legal for doctors in Ireland to perform an abortion in order to save a woman's life (unless this is because she is suicidal), but this is the only circumstance in which it is permitted. The history of abortion rights (or lack of them) in Ireland has been a troubled one, with abortion being declared unconstitutional in 1983. In 1992, the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped, and was suicidal - known as "X Case" - established the right of women to travel to other countries in order to access abortion services.
As a result, many thousands of Irish women - including those who are victims of rape and incest and require a termination for medical reasons - have travelled to Britain to obtain abortions. It's been a handy way to avoid further discussion on the subject. One pro-choice spokesperson said yesterday that there is "a complete political unwillingness to touch this issue". It doesn't help that from one corner they've got doctors saying that abortion is never medically necessary in order to save a woman's life, and in another they've got the Catholic establishment standing firm on a completely anti-choice position.
It has been said that doctors are unwilling to make decisions about terminations - even though they are within the law - because they fear the consequences, and it has been found, by the European Court of Human Rights, no less, that the government has failed to implement laws enabling women to have an abortion if their life is at risk. Decisions are often left up to individual medical professionals, and many women have claimed that they have been refused information on travelling abroad to access services even in medical emergencies.
Thanks to action from Europe, the government is having to consider possible reforms to abortion legislation, but there has been rebellion from some politicians, with the suggestion that it is not an important issue, as well as disapproval from the Catholic church.
The details of Savita's case appear to show that she was not given the medical attention she needed until it was too late and it seems obvious that there should be serious consequences for those involved with her care.
"It was all in their hands and they just let her go. How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway? Savita could have had more babies," said Praveen, adding that he had chosen to speak out about his wife's death because "it shouldn't happen to anyone else".
What's clear from all this is that the health and wellbeing of women in Ireland is simply not a priority for politicians, and that there are attitudes prevalent that are enabling doctors to go against the law. This is very, very wrong, and whether politicians are broadly pro-life or not they have a responsibility to make sure doctors are trying to save women's lives and following existing legislation. This is not something to be sidestepped or brushed under the carpet in case it upsets a minority of people.
Savita's death is bound to be used as an opportunity for political point-scoring, but whatever your beliefs about abortion rights, it should be obvious that serious injustice has occurred.
Hannah Mudge writes about all things news and feminism-themed for BitchBuzz, and is currently adjusting to life as a new mum. You can also read her blog, We Mixed Our Drinks or follow her tweets as @boudledidge.
Image via @icecreamforcrow