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Irish President Michael Higgins has signed into law the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This new legislation will allow for the termination of pregnancies when the mother’s life is at risk due to medical complications or the threat of suicide.

This victory for women’s rights (and common sense) comes on the heels of a damning report on the death of Savita Halappanavar by Ireland’s Health Service Executive. Halappanavar died because she was denied a medically necessary abortion. She was admitted to the hospital 17 weeks pregnant with a fetus that was no longer viable. Even though miscarriage was deemed “inevitable,” she was denied termination because the fetus maintained a heartbeat. Doctors insisted they could not legally terminate the pregnancy until the fetus had been without a heartbeat for 48 hours, even though Halappanavar’s condition was worsening, and she had developed blood poisoning. Hospital staff cited the country’s Roman Catholic social policies as the reason they waited three days to intervene, at which point the fetus was legally dead and Halappanavar was in septic shock. She died four days later. An Irish Jury has ruled her death a “medical misadventure.”

Halappanavar’s life could have been saved. Instead, she was forced to sacrifice her life for a fetus that would not have been born alive regardless of medical intervention. The doctors placed a higher value on the fetus' life, despite its inevitable demise, than on the mother’s.  Halappanavar had no comorbidities, and we have every reason to believe that with timely termination, she would have survived.

The hospital staff’s refusal to terminate the pregnancy not only ended her of her life, but degraded her humanity. It cast her as a carrier of a fetus, not a full person who deserved the right to care in a medical emergency. While the new law has its flaws (it fails to protect victims of rape or incest, and will not end the so-called abortion trail of women from Ireland to Britain), it marks a significant legal victory. This new law will protect the lives of women when they are most vulnerable, and declares their lives as valuable as those of the unborn.

In a time when attacks on women’s rights are running rampant globally, and in the United States in particular, the notion that a pregnant woman’s life is worth as much as her unborn child’s is not always a given. For example, in 2011 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow hospitals deny abortions to women with life-threatening conditions. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has stated that this bill will ensure that, “No health care worker has to participate in abortions against their will."  The bill asserts that health care workers have the right to deny care when they feel morally uncomfortable with procedures, and that it's acceptable if the consequence is the death of patients. Not only is the fetus' life given priority over the life of the expectant mother, so is the health care worker’s comfort level! President Barack Obama has promised to veto the bill if it ever reaches his desk. 

Globally, it is crucial for policymakers to acknowledge that there are many instances where the termination of a pregnancy is a life-and-death choice for the expectant mother. Women worldwide have the right to safe pregnancies, and to expect prompt medical assistance if their lives are endangered. Health care workers and policymakers should not deny women life-saving treatment. Despite opposition from Irish pro-life groups, Irish lawmakers and President Higgins took a brave step to ensure that young, expectant mothers no longer die needlessly from being denied abortions. Members of Congress in the United States, where abortion is legal regardless of medical complication, are grotesque in their attempts to endanger expectant mothers. U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) argued that, “you can’t find one instance” of a medically necessary abortion. Walsh, the Irish Health Service Executive has a report you really ought to read.