The news of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death after being denied an abortion has been heard around the world by now. Protesters have gathered in her honor, vigils will continue to be held and, perhaps, the end of her life will be a wake-up call. Women’s lives matter and laws should protect them—not cost them their lives.
In Ireland, abortion is against the law in most cases. But Savita should have received a legal abortion; under the constitution abortion is allowed when a woman’s life is in imminent danger. And Savita’s husband reports that doctors told them an abortion wasn’t an option, despite her repeated requests and severely declining health, because Ireland “is a Catholic country.” What that meant for Savita was that the health-care providers at Galway University Hospital made decisions based on their values (as dictated by the Catholic Church) and disregarded the value of her life.
The lack of implementation of the abortion law in Ireland is very similar to so many countries where Ipas works. In most countries, abortion is permitted for one or more reasons. Human rights authorities—including at the United Nations and ICPD–agree that governments must take steps to make legal abortion available. In fact, in 2010, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that Ireland must implement its abortion law. But when governments don’t fulfill their obligations to protect women’s reproductive rights, women can’t access safe abortion services and die as a result. Just like Savita.
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We have to hold governments accountable. Laws must be clear on abortion and guidance and training need to follow. And make no mistake, these laws and policies must include regulation of providers’ refusal of service—to ensure that a woman can receive an abortion from a willing colleague through referrals or some other mechanism. And never should a woman’s life hang in the balance because of someone else’s moral objection to abortion.
Savita isn’t alone. There are so many women whose deaths are never reported or don’t have access to hospitals and die because they can’t get safe abortion care. Why? Because the laws are not implemented, people are unwilling or untrained to provide service, and abortion stigma permeates legal systems, health systems, communities and even families. For years, Ireland has failed to enact mechanisms for legal abortion because of political and social sensitivities. Without clarity about what’s permitted and what isn’t under the law, doctors and other health-care workers tend, as they did in Savita’s case, tragically, to play it really safe—for them, that is, not for the women who are affected.
At Ipas we have worked throughout the world to help governments clarify and implement abortion laws. We partner with health-care providers, civil society organizations, and health ministries to pass guidelines that enable access to legal abortion. We support the training of health-care providers and partner with community organizations and the legal sector to promote an understanding of local abortion laws.
Let’s not forget; a woman is dead after doctors refused to terminate an already unviable—yet wanted—pregnancy for a woman in incredible pain. Her husband is left to question the decisions made by these doctors—and to grapple with her death, which could likely have been prevented.