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The relationship between Church and State has always been a complicated, interlinked one. The two have sought ultimate control since the foundation of the Catholic Church. Many events in history such as the Investiture Controversy of the 11th and 12th centuries and the breakaway of Henry VIII from the Catholic Church in 1534 have demonstrated this complicated, power-sharing, often fragile relationship. In our modern day society, however, one would believe that this is at an end and that religion and politics are now completely separate entities. This it seems is not the case.
On the 28th of October 2012 Savita Halappanavar, a dentist originally from India but now living in county Galway in Ireland, died after being refused vital healthcare in University Hospital Galway. Mrs Halappanavar presented to the hospital whilst 17 weeks pregnant with severe back-pain. Her husband Praveen Halappanavar says that, over a course of 3 days at the hospital, his wife, after being informed that she was miscarrying, asked several times for medical termination of the foetus. This was refused as foetal heartbeat was still present and Mr Halappanavar claims they were told “this is a catholic country”. It took a further 2 days before the foetal heartbeat stopped, during which time Ms Halappanavar was described as being “in agony”. Mrs Halappanavar was taken to the intensive care unit where she later died of septicaemia.
The tragedy of this case is that the criminal law, instead of protecting a citizen, prevented doctors from saving her life. Had a doctor acted to abort the foetus, to save the mother’s life, then he would likely have faced criminal prosecution and had his medical licence revoked. The end result was that as no action was taken and both mother and baby tragically died. The death of this young woman has provoked sadness, guilt and outrage by the Irish public, and indeed the public worldwide. Answers are being demanded as to how Irish law allowed this to happen and how provisions were not made for such circumstances. The sad truth is that provisions were made 20 years ago had any government been brave enough to enact them.
In 1992 the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that abortion should be lawful when a woman’s life is in danger. Despite this ruling, 20 years on no legislation has been introduced to this effect. In September 2012, a poll conducted by the Irish Times showed that 80% of voters were in favour of abortion when the life of the mother is at risk. Several other polls dating back to the 1990’s, conducted by various newspapers, TNS/MRBI and The Royal College of Surgeons, have all overwhelmingly found that the people favour abortion when the life of the woman is at risk. Therefore with the Supreme Court ruling in place and the will of the people apparent why do successive governments fail to legislate clearly for these circumstances?
The answer lies with the Catholic Church and Ireland’s longstanding, historic relationship with it. The Catholic Church’s stance against abortion in any form is one that had been mirrored by Irish governments since the foundation of the State. However, this once strong relationship between Ireland and the Vatican has in recent years been a very tested one, especially since the publishing of the much awaited Cloyne report in 2011 into allegations of abuse of children by Irish priests. In July of that year, Taoiseach of Ireland, Enda Kenny, launched a stinging criticism of the Vatican, in relation to this report, that covered a period of decades. In his address to special sitting of Dáil Éireann he stated in relation to the Vatican’s interference in Ireland;
“This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of a particular kind of morality will no longer be tolerated or ignored.”
This, it seemed at the time, was the beginning of a new era, a complete severing of the remaining ties between Church and State and a fresh start for Ireland to emerge from the shadow of its past. This has not happened, the tragedy of Sanita Halappanavar shows that the Irish government has not managed to disentangle itself from its Catholic roots and that the opinion of the Church still holds great sway over the action of government.
As recently as February of 2012, a motion was put forward in Dáil Éireann to legislate on the Supreme Court’s decision. This bill was rejected by a staggering 109 votes to 20. The failure by Ireland’s politicians to legislate, even when given opportunity to do so, must stem with Ireland’s catholic roots and more importantly it’s largely catholic voter base. The government is afraid to tackle a hard issue such as abortion that goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church and which may even slightly endanger the party’s popularity. This sadly is in keeping with Ireland’s history of not tackling hard issues; political parties in Ireland have a habit of waiting for a travesty to occur that bolsters public opinion before acting. It took the murder of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin in 1996, by gang lords in Ireland, before legislation was brought forward leading to the formation of the hugely successful Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).
All we as a State and as a people can now hope for is that this shocking death triggers the same effect and forces the government into action. It is far too late for Sanita Halappanavar and her family - and her death due to this country’s failure to act over a period of 20 years can never be forgiven or forgotten - but what we can and must do now is act to ensure this is never allowed happen again and that Ireland can learn to take pre-emptive action in future rather than reactive.
Ireland remains one of the few countries in the EU where medical abortion is unlegislated upon and is now, after this scandal, perceived internationally as the only country that would have allowed this to happen. The effect that this story has had on Ireland’s image has been and continues to be devastating. The Indian Times ran with a front page headline of “Ireland murders pregnant Indian dentist”; Mrs Halappanavar’s mother also commented that the catholic culture of this country “murdered” her daughter even though she herself was a Hindu.
Several other national newspapers from as far as the USA to Australia run with similar stories all commenting that Mrs Halappanavar died because she was in a catholic country. Our longstanding image of “Holy Catholic Ireland” has been one which was embraced in the past by our people and populations worldwide and that shed Ireland in a very favourable light but we must now become aware as a nation that as a result of the last few years with the publishing of the Cloyne report and the death of Mrs Halappanavar that this longstanding tag of “Holy Catholic Ireland” is fast becoming a negative one.
Steven Robinson, Criminology M.A. student, University College Cork, Ireland.
Press reports and comments:
Savita Halappanavar: Ireland, Abortion and the Politics of Death and Grief from Critical Legal Thinking blog, kindly sent to CrimeTalk by Dr. Linda Connolly, Sociology, University College Cork.
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