About four-fifths of the population of Scotland would agree – this crosses gender-lines, voting-intention, religious belief, class/wealth, or locale – that abortion in Scotland should remain freely available on the NHS.
Only a minority think that pregnant patients who need access to abortion should have that access decreased. That minority can be loud and can be unkind – the ones who think it’s a good idea picketing clinics to hand anti-abortion leaflets to patients are particularly cruel – but they are, everywhere, only a minority.
On 28th April this year in Edinburgh we held our annual celebration of the day the 1967 Abortion Act became law. (On the other side of the road are the sad people who think abortion in the UK should have remained illegal and dangerous.)
We asked people who stopped by our stall to have cake and sign our open letter:
“We stand with the people of Ireland who will be voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment on 25th May 2018: for healthcare in pregnancy to be freely and fully available for all patients. Abortion denial is lethal.”
We were there for two hours and 64 people signed: one person every two minutes. We ran out of cake.
Today in the Republic of Ireland the people vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment of their constitution.
In Northern Ireland, abortion remains inaccessible unless performed to save the life of the pregnant woman: in the Republic of Ireland, the 8th Amendment to their Constitution says “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
What this means in practice is that a girl or a woman may desperately need an abortion, but the only way a doctor can allow it to be performed is if the doctor is confident they’ll be able to justify in court (since they can be sentenced to 14 years in prison) that if they didn’t perform the abortion, their patient would die.
Savita Halappanavar died in Galway in October 2012, because when she entered the hospital on Sunday night, 17 weeks pregnant with a wanted baby, they told her she was having a miscarriage. She was a dentist: her family had a long tradition of medically-trained women: she understood this meant her pregnancy was over, and she wanted an abortion to terminate the miscarriage – the safest course.
When a woman miscarries, the placenta rips away from the wall of the uterus. This creates an open wound – invisible, because deep inside the woman’s body, but an open wound which can become infected. Her cervix, the mouth of her uterus, has opened. If the miscarriage is swift, and fetus and placenta are expelled from her body within a few hours, her cervix will close tight again, ending the risks of infection. If her cervix remains open, as it does in a prolonged miscarriage, the risks of infection vastly increase to the point that sepsis is regarded as inevitable. This is why abortion to terminate the miscarriage is medically safest for the patient: but it is banned in Ireland so long as the fetus is technically alive.
A 17-week fetus doesn’t survive miscarriage. The doctors in that Galway hospital held off providing an abortion not because they had any notion that they would thereby save the fetus’s life – but because the Eighth Amendment legally obliged them to regard that fetus’s life as equal to the life of Savita Halappanavar, and therefore to let Savita suffer through a prolonged miscarriage which eventually killed her, rather than terminate the life of the fetus at any point during the days which Savita lay suffering, even though they knew the fetus was going to die. Once it had died, they could remove the dead fetus from Savita Halappanavar’s dying body, let her cervix close, and hope they were in time to save her life. But they weren’t.
This practice of waiting until the patient is at the point of death still happens in Ireland.
Supporters of the Eighth Amendment will frequently claim that in Ireland it is legal to provide an abortion to save the mother’s life. They never seem to realise – I have tested this multiple times – that this assertion would be far more convincing if they concede that if they are correct in claiming this, the Galway doctors should have given Savita Halappanavar an abortion on the Monday when she asked for it: the fetus couldn’t be saved and a prolonged miscarriage can kill the patient. Instead, if you bring up Savita Halappanavar, they squawk that she didn’t die because she didn’t have an abortion, she died of sepsis! And they do not want to be reminded that she only died of sepsis because she wasn’t allowed to have an abortion.
Ireland has a normal abortion rate: Irish women “travel”. They go overseas for a safe, legal abortion at their own risk and expense. Usually to England, sometimes to Scotland or the Netherlands or France: but most pregnant patients who need abortions are dependent on healthcare charities in England to provide the care that their government will not. BPAS and Marie Stopes both recognise the reality of this by providing cheaper abortion services to patients from Ireland.
The largest single group of women having late abortions in the UK are women travelling from Ireland who delayed their abortion because they had to find the money and the time to travel.
Pregnant patients who need immediate emergency care because their waters have already broken have flown to England because in Ireland they would shortly become trapped in the limbo of “too sick to travel” “fetus still has a heartbeat so patient can’t be helped”.
If Savita Halappanavar had been Irish, she and her husband might well have checked out of that Galway hospital on Monday afternoon and caught a plane to London, where doctors would immediately have performed an abortion. You can read the personal accounts of women who had to do just that – and many other kinds of experiences – on the Facebook group In Her Shoes, some of the stories of the nine women each day who have to leave Ireland to get an abortion.
This is a referendum that is our concern – if No wins, we in the UK have to continue to provide this service to patients travelling from Ireland. I don’t mean to suggest that these services are not provided willingly and cheerfully – it’s only right that pregnant patients should be able to access abortion services, and should be supported when they do.
But it’s all wrong that these services should be wilfully outsourced by the Irish government at the patients’ difficulty and expense, and it’s really not true to say that the country that provides most of those services to the Irish patients has no interest in the result of the referendum.
All the little angels rise up, rise up.
All the little angels rise up high!
How do they rise up, rise up, rise up?
How do they rise up, rise up high?
They rise heads up, heads up, heads up, they rise heads up, heads up high!
Final results: Yes 66.4%, No 33.6%, almost exactly a 2/3rds landslide for repealing the eighth amendment. Forty constituencies counted – the only one not to achieve a Yes majority was Donegal, where No got 51.9% and Tes 48.1%.