It was 32 years ago that Sheila Hodgers went through agony and eventually died at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda because those in charge refused her painkilling medication.
Because Sheila was pregnant and it was decided that the drugs might harm her baby. Likewise, Sheila was refused an X-ray, even though the hospital was aware she might have a tumour in her back. That decision was also made on the grounds that it might damage the child.
Sheila’s life was judged to be less important than the delivery of a baby that could never survive. Eventually, two days after the child was stillborn, Sheila Hodgers also died at the age of 26, having been denied the most basic dignity of pain-relief.
That was 1980.
Since then, we’ve congratulated ourselves on the progress we made, but how wrong we were. Just as the collapse of the property bubble exposed our materialistic hubris for the delusion it was, the death of Savita Halappanavar has exposed our delusions that Ireland is a mature nation and no longer a superstition-ridden backwater.
In coming days, I predict that assorted hypocrites will trot out the following worn-out mantra:
Hard cases make bad law.
This is a thoroughly discredited cliché that needs to be challenged wherever it crops up. Denning, despite his lamentable lapses in dotage, remains the pre-eminent jurist in common law. He dismissed this sad old adage briskly, as befits the sharp mathematician he was:
It should be deleted from our vocabulary. It comes to this: “Unjust decisions make good law”: whereas they do nothing of the kind. Every unjust decision is a reproach to the law or to the judge who administers it.
It’s nonsense. Reject it wherever you hear it. Hard cases do not make bad law. They demand good law. A humane society needs to legislate for people such as Savita Halappanavar. If we are unable to do something that simple, we have no legitimate claim to civilisation.
I have never felt so ashamed of our country. I have never felt so disgusted by our cowardly politicians. And I have never felt such contempt for the mindless religious ideologues who have shouted us down for so long.
This letter to the Irish Times throws a useful light on the current Irish situation.
Sir, – I feel very sad for Savita and Praveen Halappanavar. I also feel sad for all those doctors who, day in, day out, have to deal with critical illness in pregnant women.
Theirs is a heavy burden, made all the heavier by the knowledge they are held in a legislative limbo that threatens their personal liberty and their livelihood.
The only legislation covering this difficult area is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which provides for a minimum sentence of two years hard labour, up to penal servitude for life, for anyone who intervenes with intent to cause a miscarriage.
Medical Council guidelines use the words “rare” and “exceptional” to describe circumstances where it may be necessary to terminate a pregnancy. The Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago that abortion was lawful where there was a real and substantial threat to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother. The Constitution acknowledges to right to life of the unborn “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. It is that grey area which poses both a challenge to doctors and a threat to them and their patients.
In the absence of modern legislation, clarifying the circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is lawful, as opposed to potentially criminal, there remains a real risk to the liberty, or livelihood, of a doctor who terminates a pregnancy for any reason in this State. The risk is that another person, whether a colleague, or a member of the public who comes to know of the matter, may report it to An Garda Síochána, or to the Medical Council. The inevitable outcome is a rearguard, defensive position for the doctor.
It is such uncertainty that is likely to lead to hesitation in taking an irrevocable step in the care of a pregnant woman, such as may create dangerous delays and potentially lead to tragic consequences. The Government has already been found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, by failing to ensure that a woman can secure a legally authoritative determination of what her rights are in her individual situation. It is 20 years since the X case and two years since the European Court of Human Rights judgment, although the relevant application was made five years before that.
The only way in which this situation can be improved, for the benefit of mothers and their other children, and to protect their doctors, allowing those doctors to exercise their clinical knowledge without fear, is for the legislature to accept the responsibility they have sought in elections. The people of Ireland have spoken several times, to indicate that they do not believe abortion is evil in every circumstance. How many women must die due to fear and ignorance, before our legislators will be brave and accountable? – Yours, etc,
Prof PK PLUNKETT,
Trinity College Dublin,
Clinical Director/ Consultant
Dept of Emergency Medicine St James’s Hospital,