Savita Halappanavar: Ireland Walks a Dangerous Line Between Church and State

In response to public outcry following the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland last October, the Irish government recently released a preliminary draft of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy bill. The bill will allow physicians to perform abortions in cases where the life of the mother is in imminent danger. While Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny insists that this bill simply clarifies the existing law, the Catholic Church in Ireland condemned the legislation as “a dramatically and morally unacceptable change to existing Irish law.”

While abortion has been illegal in Ireland since 1861, the pivotal 1992 Irish “X Case” Supreme Court decision made exceptions for instances where the life of the mother is in danger. However, the Irish government has yet to pass a single piece of legislation clarifying what constitutes “danger.” As a result, the European Court of Human Rights has declared that Irish doctors are stuck in a legal limbo, leaving them fearful of performing necessary medical procedures while women are left to die in the process.

This problem became apparent in the highly publicized death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born Hindu woman practicing dentistry in Ireland. Mrs. Halappanavar was suffering from a miscarriage during the 17th week of her pregnancy when she and her husband went to University Hospital Galway, where they were forced to plead with Irish physicians to help save her life. Even after the medical team determined that the fetus was no longer viable, the family’s request to terminate the pregnancy was denied and Mrs. Halappanavar subsequently suffered from septicemia, multiple organ failure, and ultimately passed away a few days later. 

Mrs. Halappanavar’s death has ignited public support for new legislation. The currently proposed law states that in cases of emergency and with consent of the mother, the presiding physician may abort the pregnancy at an approved facility. If the danger comes from a risk of suicide by the mother, the patient must consult three additional physicians – an obstetrician and two psychiatrists – all of whom must unanimously agree that termination is in order. If the three do not agree, the patient must seek an appeal. Aside from these instances, abortion remains illegal in Ireland with no exceptions for rape or incest. Individuals who violate the law by carrying out illegal abortions or assisting others in obtaining illegal abortions can face up to 14 years in prison. Even if the proposed legislation is passed, Ireland will still have the toughest restrictions on abortion in all of Europe.

While most pro-choice advocates would argue that this law does not even scratch the surface for establishing women's rights in Ireland, the Catholic Church has continued to double down on its criticism of the proposed bill. The Catholic bishops of Ireland released a statement saying, "It is a tragic moment for Irish society when we regard the deliberate destruction of a completely innocent person as an acceptable response to the threat of the preventable death of another person.”

Prominent voices within the Irish Catholic Church have gone one step further by urging priests to withhold Communion from politicians who choose to support the government’s proposed legislation. While Cardinal Sean Brady, Ireland’s senior-most Catholic cleric, says that the bishops have yet to decide whether or not Communion will be denied to certain politicians, the fact that this is even a question should be a major cause of concern.

In a nation where 76.7% of citizens self-identify as Catholics and a whopping 84% regularly attend church, there is no doubt that the church is revered in Irish society. Given their elevated stature, it is all the more troublesome that the nation's religious leaders would use their pulpit as a means to enter into the political arena and attempt to dictate women's health policies. 

If the Catholic Church in Ireland succeeds in its effort to bully politicians out of supporting common-sense legislation that has already been upheld by the Supreme Court, we must call into question the nature of Irish democracy itself. If a supposedly secular nation's elected representatives are more responsive to the demands of a religious group than they are to the nation's citizens and its constitution, can that nation truly be called a democracy?