Ireland’s first-ever legal abortion was carried out last week in a Dublin hospital. The National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, Dublin carried out the pregnancy termination for a dying woman whose membrane had ruptured for over 24 hours. The woman was 18 weeks pregnant and was displaying signs of sepsis, and was able to survive as a result of the abortion.
The “Protection of Life During Pregnancy” law legalizes abortion in cases when the woman’s life is at risk, including a provision that deals with the risk of suicide. It marks the first time the country has changed its abortion restrictions since 1867. Previously, the life of the mother and child were considered equally important, and abortion was outlawed.
The country’s move towards a more lenient abortion law was mainly prompted by the case of Savita Halappanavar, the 31-year old woman who died of sepsis at University Hospital in Galway in October 2012 after she was refused an emergency termination due to Ireland's rigid anti-abortion laws. Halappanavar’s death sparked fierce criticism against Ireland’s draconian abortion restrictions, and rightly so: Her death could have been prevented had she been allowed to terminate her non-viable fetus. The woman who underwent the abortion recently in Ireland was in a condition similar to that of Halappanavar, as they both had ruptured membranes and sepsis. But unlike Halappanavar, the other woman was allowed an abortion, and after receiving antibiotic treatment, was able to fully recover.
While this new law is a huge step towards reproductive justice in Ireland, the country still has a long way to go. The law states that abortions will only be performed when there is an “immediate risk of loss of the pregnant woman’s life” and when the procedure is thought “immediately necessary.” Abortions that are not performed to save a woman’s life are forbidden, and there are no exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or birth defects.
Since Ireland is a predominantly Catholic country, abortion remains quite controversial. Any progressive abortion bill is sure to spark criticism from pro-life campaigners, and there seems to be constant debate between the two sides. This isn’t too different from Arizona anti-abortion lobbyists’ recent attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. The road to reproductive freedom is paved with continual pushbacks from conservatives, resulting in a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of progression. For now, Planned Parenthood has defeated the attempt to limit access to its facilities. Ireland, too, has overcome strong Catholic opposition and gone ahead with relaxing abortion laws.
And this is how it will probably continue: not a linear progression, but a movement that will face many setbacks as well as triumphs. Ireland’s new law might not be perfect, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction.