Motivation for Change in Ireland

Motivation for Change in Ireland

Nursing Clio is honored to have a guest blogger today – the wonderful Helen McBride. 

Helen recently graduated with her MA in History and Gender & Women Studies in May 2012 from the University of Wyoming. She is now working for a local college back home in Northern Ireland. Her academic interests include gender and conflict resolution. She also enjoys “spotting sexism in local newspapers – an exhausting, never-ending hobby.”

It’s no surprise that laws concerning family planning have remained within a grey area in Ireland. Following the tragedy of Savita Halappanavar’s death, Amnesty International has called upon Ireland to clean up its act. Halappanavar entered University Hospital, Galway on 21st October due to severe back pain. This back pain was diagnosed as a symptom of a miscarriage, being 17 weeks pregnant at the time. Halappanavar later died on 28th October, the cause being classified as septicaemia. The situation has been explained by Halappanavar’s husband that upon discovering the miscarriage, they repeatedly asked for a medical termination, as Halappanavar was in substantial pain. This request was denied repeatedly over three days. RTE has outlined the timeline of events.

Savita Halappanavar and her husband, Praveen, on their wedding day.

According to Savita’s husband Praveen Halappanavar, Savida was denied a medical termination because the foetal heartbeat was still present and told that Ireland was a “Catholic country.” As an Indian national living in Ireland, this situation begs the question – would this proclamation of Catholicism been spouted at Halappanavar had she been a white, Irish woman?

Despite this claim of mass obedience to the Catholic Church, thousands have entered the streets in protest over the last few days in Galway, Dublin and London. It seems as though this issue has been the final straw on the camel’s back that is the antiquated birth control laws in Ireland. Contraceptives only became available with a prescription following the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979, and even then they could only be sold by a “registered medical practitioner”. This continued until the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act, 1985, which finally allowed those over the age of 18 to purchase contraceptives without a prescription.

Marie Stopes plaque, Edinburgh. Open Plaques, Flickr

Whatever the current investigations into Halappanavar’s death may reveal, this case has become the motivation for change. Her story is symbolic of the hope for a break away from the uncomfortable partnership between the government and the Catholic Church.  Amnesty International and the UN have pointed toward Ireland’s confusing status on abortion when the mother’s life is at risk. “In 2011 the UN Committee against Torture urged Ireland to clarify the scope of legal abortion through statutory law.” In 1992, it was ruled that “abortions should be legal to save the life of the woman . . . but successive governments have refused to pass legislation spelling out the rules governing that general principle, leaving the decision up to individual doctors in an environment of secrecy.” This environment of secrecy is one of our oldest traditions in Ireland, especially concerning women. Another horrifying story to come out of the ROI this month is the documentary showing the experience of women whose pelvic bones were broken during labour in a procedure called symphysiotomy.

But as the thousands of people who protested with signs of “Never Again” reveal, maybe we will see a road ahead. People are waiting for change; demanding that now is the time for it. This is huge. For so long women have been underrepresented in the Dáil (not that Ireland is alone in this – just look at her neighbours in Stormont and Westminster). The outcry has me hopeful for some sort of legislation following the investigations. The question remains, will the outcry be enough to finally get women on the agenda in Ireland?

A lot has been said about the affect on women in the ROI on the opening of the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast, so what does the Halappanavar case say for Northern Ireland? True to form, Health Minister Edwin Poots has been in the middle of it. While his opinion on the abortion front has been made clear, the pressure to bring clarity on the legality of abortion in NI has increased with the Halappanavar case. Like the ROI, there remains a lot of confusion. Obviously confusion is at the heart of incidents such as this; Dr. Audrey Simpson, acting chief executive and director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland has stated, according to the Belfast Telegraph “the absence of the guidelines from the minister means that clinicians are being forced to operate in a vacuum”. While the law remains murky, we are allowing opportunities for religious dogma to fill that vacuum.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Health was ordered to issue guidance for this issue back in 2004, and yet still does not exist. Poots’ reluctance to issue this guidance can, in my eyes, only be seen as the actions of a disgraceful public servant. He is putting his beliefs in front of his constituent’s wellbeing. This issue has now been shunted to the top of the political agenda in NI and ROI, our Health Minister needs to step up and do his job!

Ireland is now being presented internationally as a backward, conservative, “Catholic country”. Don’t get me wrong, this case reveals that those elements do exist in Ireland and have considerable weight in government. However, the reaction against Halappanavar’s death has been overwhelming. Not only have there been a multitude of protests across the country, but in my experience – most women are talking about it. Despite living and working in a fairly conservative area in Northern Ireland, I’ve yet to hear anyone defend those who refused Halappanavar a medical termination as a life saving procedure. That says so much. As is the case with Human Rights, change is often slow and laborious. I suspect a long road a head for women on both sides of the border in Ireland.

Featured image caption: Dublin Savita Halappanavar Rally. Wikimedia