A young rape victim in Ireland who said she was suicidal — and who was examined by two psychologists to confirm her symptoms of depression — has been denied the right to end her pregnancy under the socially conservative country’s strict abortion ban. Her baby was recently delivered by C-section at 25 weeks.
The case is reigniting controversy over Ireland’s harsh reproductive health laws, which sparked international protests in 2012 after a woman died because she was denied access to an emergency abortion. If Savita Halappanavar had been allowed to end her pregnancy, she might still be alive today. The widespread outrage over her preventable death spurred Irish lawmakers to slightly relax the country’s total abortion ban last year.
Now, under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, a woman may terminate a pregnancy in cases where her life is in danger, including in cases when her mental health poses a suicide risk. In order for a woman to get approved for that new exemption, a panel of three doctors must examine her and unanimously agree that an abortion is necessary to save her life. This case marks the first “high profile test” of the new rules.
According to the BBC, the young women who recently gave birth — who is not being identified by name in the press — is “believed to be young and very vulnerable” and became pregnant after a sexual assault. The Irish edition of The Sunday Times reports that the woman first discovered she was pregnant at about eight weeks and, as the victim of a “traumatic rape,” immediately began the process for obtaining a mental health exemption to Ireland’s abortion law. Since she is not a citizen of Ireland, she couldn’t travel to another European country to end the pregnancy.
After the woman was examined by two psychologists and one obstetrician, both psychologists agreed she was having suicidal thoughts that put her life at risk. But the obstetrician determined her fetus was viable and should be delivered. Since the final decision about the case wasn’t handed down until 17 weeks had passed — by which point the woman was 25 weeks into her pregnancy — she believes the government was deliberately delaying the process to ensure her fetus would reach viability. After her request for an abortion was denied, she went on a hunger strike.
Reproductive rights advocates in Ireland told the Guardian that the case is “a shocking indictment of Ireland” and “illustrates quite clearly that women are treated as little more than incubators under Irish law.” The international community agrees; last month, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed Ireland’s abortion law and determined that it’s in direct violation of women’s human rights. Members of the committee pointed out that forcing a pregnant woman at risk of suicide to be examined by three doctors before being allowed to proceed with an abortion could amount to “mental torture.”
The United Nations has long taken the stance that women’s reproductive health should not suffer under draconian laws. Previous UN reports have urged countries around the world to remove “unnecessary barriers” to abortion, pointing out that thousands of impoverished women in developing nations are dying because of illegal abortion procedures and unsafe pregnancies.
Research into the subject has found that harsh bans on abortion don’t actually do anything to lower abortion rates. Nonetheless, a handful of deeply conservative Catholic countries still impose total bans on the procedure. Similar controversies have unfolded in El Salvador and Chile.