The European Court of Human Rights has now demanded that the Irish government answer exactly that question regarding their abortion policies.
The law says that abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances, the exception being where necessary to save the woman’s life. Problem is that the government’s never been very clear about what conditions meet the criterion of “danger to the pregnant woman’s life.”
Where to begin with this story?
In 1992, a 14-year-old rape victim wanted an abortion and threatened suicide if she was forced to continue the pregnancy. She sued the government for the right to travel abroad to get an abortion in a country where it was legal.
Because, you see, up to that point, it was not only illegal for this raped 14-year-old to terminate a pregnancy that was a serious problem for her mental health, but the government was prepared to prevent her from traveling to another country where she could do it legally.
How exactly did the Irish government enforce this prohibition, I wonder? Was every woman placed on the no-fly list after a positive pregnancy test at a doctor’s office? How does an ostensibly democratic country make it impossible for pregnant women to travel to countries where abortion is legal?
Anyway. The result was that, when faced with a 14-year-old rape victim who wasn’t interested in having her rapist’s baby, the government decided to relax its restrictions, at least on paper.
The Irish Supreme Court ruled that traveling to obtain abortions abroad was legal, and Ireland itself should provide abortions in cases where a continued pregnancy would threaten the life of the woman. Ireland in 1992 passed a law permitting women the right to travel abroad for abortions.
At the same time, the Irish Supreme Court’s judgment was that:
abortions should be legalized in Ireland in all cases where the woman’s life is endangered by continued pregnancy — including by a woman’s threats to commit suicide.”
And that was the part that never really got ironed out. A plausible explanation, I think, is that the one event canceled out the other. I have no doubt that many, many Irish women procured perfectly safe abortions in Great Britain for many years before the raped 14-year-old sued the Irish government for the right to do so—they just had to be discreet about it. Since the new law meant they now had nothing to fear from getting abortions in other countries, the pressure was off the government to comply with the Supreme Court judgment which said abortions needed to be legal in-country for women whose pregnancies endangered their lives.
The provisions remained unclear until another lawsuit in 2005.
The Irish Family Planning Association took Ireland’s government to court on behalf of three women who had to travel overseas that year for abortions: an Irish woman who had four previous children placed in state care, an Irish woman who didn’t want to become a single mother, and a Lithuanian woman living in Ireland who was in remission from cancer.
The European Court decided the first two women were SOL. Don’t want another kid taken away? Don’t want to raise a kid alone? Tough luck, ladies. The third one, however? The Lithuanian woman with cancer?
They made her travel to another country for an abortion when she might have died of cancer if she’d stayed pregnant?
Sorry, but if the concern that:
her rare form of cancer might relapse during her pregnancy if she reduced her treatment, and that the fetus would be harmed if she did not
doesn’t meet the criterion of “to save the woman’s life,” then WHAT DOES?
The issue before the court was not so much that the law said anything to the effect that cancer patients who become pregnant can’t have abortions in Ireland, but that the law is so unclear that doctors don’t know what’s allowed. Since they don’t know that they won’t be prosecuted and penalized for terminating the pregnancy (and the penalties are plenty harsh on both sides), the pregnant woman with cancer was effectively unable to have an abortion except by leaving the country.
The judges, reported AP, lambasted Ireland’s defense claiming that the woman should have petitioned the Irish High Court for the right to have an abortion in Ireland. They said Irish doctors must be given clear legal guidance on the rules for deeming women eligible for abortions.
According to the judges:
“[Ireland’s failure] has resulted in a striking discordance between the theoretical right to a lawful abortion in Ireland on grounds of a relevant risk to a woman’s life, and the reality of its practical implementation,” the judges wrote.
IOW: “Not cool, Irish government. It’s YOUR responsibility to make sure she doesn’t have to go through all that.”
Here we have another example of what happens in a country where abortion is prohibited by law: they would rather drive a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim to suicide than let her take a trip to England for an abortion, and when the populace can’t stomach that degree of interference, they will force a cancer patient to jump through bureaucratic hoops or accept the stress and expense of a trip abroad so that she may continue her cancer treatments as needed. When discussing the possible enforcement of a theoretical abortion ban here in America, I am told there would be nothing to worry about, that the law would only be enforced against the abortionists, not the women, that this isn’t Central America where they prosecute women for having miscarriages.
Really? This isn’t Central America? There would be no inhumanities visited on women who need abortions here, because this is the United States? That a ban would only target the providers, because “the pro-life movement sees women as co-victims of the crime of abortion”? Really? The pro-life movement can treat women like stupid children until the cows come home, but are they aware that we live in the country with the largest incarcerated population, as a percentage of total population, in the world? Have they noticed how many people we lock up just for taking recreational drugs? They think we can ban abortion without punishing the women who have them, because “this isn’t Central America”? Well, Ireland is also a country under the control of white people who speak English, and this is how they treat women with unwanted pregnancies. Perhaps we’re not like Central America to the extent that we don’t force women to bear children they don’t want. Just think of what would happen in a larger country with few neighbors. Irish women, at least, don’t have to travel nearly so far for legal abortion services. I suppose that if you can afford a trip to Canada, a ban on abortion services here in America won’t be too onerous a burden. For most Americans, however, a trip to Canada is not a trivial inconvenience for a time-sensitive medical procedure. This is what happens when a state decides that fetuses are separate persons with rights that must be protected from their mothers’ decisions. This is where the rubber meets the road.