While it seems like hardly a week passes that another state government doesn’t try to chip away at Roe v. Wade, some encouraging news on the abortion front has surfaced from one of the most unlikely of places: Ireland.
Abortion has been illegal across the board in the heavily Catholic state for over a hundred years, but President Michael Higgins changed that last week by signing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act Tuesday—one day before his legal deadline for doing so. For the first time, Irish women will be legally permitted to terminate their pregnancies in life-threatening cases — but only in life-threatening cases.
While this would be considered unconstitutionally restrictive by (most) American standards, it’s a relatively progressive step for a country that, until now, has seen multiple pregnant women die due to its draconian anti-abortion laws.
Savita Halappanavar is the most recent example, and her death last year was the impetus behind the passing and signing of this law. In October 2012, the 17 weeks pregnant Halappanavar began to miscarry, and sought an emergency abortion at an Irish hospital.
However, the hospital refused to carry out the abortion on the grounds that the fetus still still had a heartbeat — even though doctors also determined that it wasn’t viable and could not have been born alive. Halappanavar soon went into septic shock and died several days later.
When news of Halappanavar’s death and the circumstances behind it broke, it struck a nerve around the world. Protesters took to the streets not only in Ireland, but India as well. A vigil was held in her honor in New York City, and a United Nations watchdog argued that a country “cannot limit availability and accessibility of health services, goods and facilities only on the basis of life exception.”
Eight months after Halappanavar’s death, the Health Service Executive (HSE), Ireland’s national health board, issued a damning report on the incident, blaming both the clinic and the current statutes regarding abortion, and urging a change in Irish abortion law.
President Higgins had sought legal advise on whether the bill violated the country’s constitution, which outlaws abortion, and considered sending it to the Supreme Court before ultimately signing it.
Unsurprisingly, pro-life activists are not pleased with the country’s new, slightly-more permissive stance toward abortion. One legal advisor to a pro-life group said that the law “makes it legal to deliberately target the life of an innocent human being,” and protesters have pledged to fight for repeal of the new law.
Intriguingly, the law includes “suicidal thoughts” as one viable criteria for permitting an abortion. It seems inevitable that abortion opponents will paint this provision a loophole permitting non-medically necessary abortions, but whether this becomes a reality will depend on how the law is enforced. Regardless, the new law is a small but hugely significant step for a country with one of them most restrictive abortion laws in the world.