Ireland must vote “Yes” in this week’s abortion referendum to right a serious wrong, the chair of an inquiry into the death of a pregnant woman has said.
Prof Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran said Ireland was a just and compassionate society, but that an amendment in the Constitution has resulted in that compassion not being extended to women who need to end a pregnancy that endangers her health or her life.
Irish voters will cast their ballot on Friday on whether they want to liberalise the country’s strict abortion laws.
Citizens will decide if they want to remove the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal right to life to the unborn and the woman, and replace it with wording to allow for parliament to legislate for the termination of pregnancies.
The Government wants to legislate for abortions for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without limits.
Currently, terminations are only allowed in the Irish Republic when the life of the mother is at risk, including from suicide, and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.
“People in Ireland have the opportunity to right a wrong, to better protect the health of pregnant women and to ensure that doctors can provide the best possible care to women in Ireland,” Prof Arulkumaran said.
The former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Prof Arulkumaran headed the Government backed inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old woman who he said was admitted to University Hospital Galway with inevitable miscarriage when she was 17 weeks pregnant.
She died at the hospital in October 2012. An abortion had not been carried out because of concerns over the foetal hearbeat.
Following his inquiry, the Health Service Executive (HSE) said clinical staff at Galway University Hospital failed to properly assess or monitor the dying woman’s condition.
Professor Arulkumaran said the Eighth Amendment played a major role in Ms Halapannavar’s death because the healthcare team were concerned about the foetal heartbeat.
“They were worried that if they do a termination that they might be accused of performing an illegal act, not complying with the Eighth Amendment so I think that is quite important to recognise that,” he said.
Prof Arulkumaran said the current laws, which allow a pregnancy to be terminated in cases where there is a threat to the life of the woman, does not give doctors enough legal clarity.
He added the threat to life is often difficult to diagnose on medical grounds.
Irish Family Planning Association counselling director Maura Leahy also called for the status quo to be changed.
Ms Leahy said Irish women from all walks of life have experienced crisis pregnancy.
“The women who make the difficult decision to not continue with their pregnancy all share the experience of being abandoned by our healthcare service,” she said.
“They are stigmatised, shamed and traumatised when they are forced to access care either outside the state or outside the law.”
Ms Leahy added people can change this by voting “Yes” on Friday.
Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he believes there was an “irresistible tide” for change now.
“People want to leave behind the dark decades of denying women their own choices and their own rights and believe that it is up to women to decide,” Mr Barrett said.
“That’s what this is about.
“It is about whether the church and State should decide about women’s futures or whether women should be able to decide for themselves.”
Party colleague Brid Smith said by not providing abortion services in Ireland women have to have later abortions because they have to travel to obtain one.
“This penalises poorer women more than it does other women,” she said.