The unnamed woman, now 18, was reportedly raped as a minor and sought an abortion just eight weeks into her pregnancy. Even after experts found her to be suicidal – a prerequisite for abortion under a new Irish law – she was denied access to the procedure. According to a report by the Sunday Times, the woman, who is not an Irish citizen, believes that the government deliberately delayed her case – both through the state’s decision to ignore psychiatric experts and via her inability to travel because of her legal status – so that she would have to carry the pregnancy at least through the fetus’s viability. After going on a hunger strike, she was forced to undergo a caesarean section at just 25 weeks into her pregnancy.
That’s 17 full weeks after she first sought help.
That is not a policy; it’s a persecution. And now a country with a barbaric abortion ban that killed Savita Halappanavar in 2012 will be forced to reckon with the horror it has inflicted on yet another vulnerable woman.
Halappanavar’s death, caused by an infection after the 31-year-old Indian dentist was denied an abortion under Ireland’s strict laws, sparked outrage across the country. So Ireland passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which made abortion legal if a woman’s life were threatened by the pregnancy or if she were suicidal.
Doctors warned, however, that the legislation could still stop women from obtaining the care that the law was meant to allow. Dr Mary Favier, a member of Ireland’s Doctors for Choice, told me, “We predicted it would be a bad law, that it was going to be trouble and quickly that’s been proven.”
Psychiatry professor Veronica O’Keane told the same thing to the Guardian earlier this month:
The repeated examination of a woman’s mental state by at least four doctors, and possibly seven, the repeated question specifically about suicidal ideation and intent, will not only be overly invasive, confusing and distressing emotionally, it will also be time-consuming in a period of crisis when a suicidal woman needs access to a termination as soon as possible.
It’s not just confusing for patients, either: the guidelines for healthcare providers on how to implement the law is confounding, complete with complicated charts and figures that demonstrate the unrealistic hoops women and doctors must jump through in order to comply with the legislation.
It’s clear from this latest young woman’s case that those guidelines and policies did what many suspect that they were designed to do: make it as difficult as possible for women to get the care they need. For women here in the US who are familiar with the war on reproductive rights, this likely sounds familiar: laws said to be in our best interest – like mandating hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers – actually only serve to further limit our access to abortion.
Sarah McCarthy, a spokesperson for Galway Pro-Choice, told me that “even those who are entitled to an abortion under our severely restrictive legislation can still be denied that right”, and that the latest case highlights how vulnerable women are the most impacted by the law. Middle-class Irish women who have money to travel can leave the country for their abortions: “If you can’t afford to travel or don’t have the papers, it’s a nightmare,” she said. Again, this is also very much the case here in the US: if your county doesn’t have an abortion provider and you can’t afford the gas or time off from work to travel (sometimes out-of-state), procuring the procedure is near-impossible.
The other piece of this horrific puzzle is the questionable ethics of delivering a fetus at 25 weeks. As mother to a daughter who was born at 28 weeks, I’m well-versed in the nightmare scenarios of babies born too early. Preemies born before 26 weeks – sometimes called micropreemies – are at high risk for brain bleeds, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, necrotizing enterocolitis (when tissue in the intestines die off) and many other physical and mental disabilities. They also must endure serious invasive medical procedures, including surgeries, intubation, feeding tubes and central intravenous lines. And while the survival rates of young preemies has gone up in recent years, the chances of severe and lasting disabilities have not gone down.
I understand that, to those who believe all abortion is unequivocally wrong, a suffering child might be better than no child at all – but that is not a decision best made by government flow-charts and distant bureaucrats, but by the family members involved.
As more information on this case comes out, the outrage over Ireland’s treatment of women will only grow. Dr Favier calls what happened to the teenager “a shocking indictment of Ireland – there’s no other country in the civilized world where this would have happened”. McCarthy told me the case “illustrates quite clearly that women are treated as little more than incubators under Irish law”. The United Nations agrees – just last month, UN Human Rights Committee chairman Nigel Rodley said Irish abortion laws treat pregnant women as “a vessel and nothing more”.
We may not know her name, but we know that this woman is more than a vessel – even if she was treated as such. And we know she was wronged by a government that should have protected her when she needed it most.