An interview in The Irish Times with the woman at the centre of Ireland’s latest abortion controversy has shown how ill-founded much early reporting and comment on the case has been. It seems that large parts of the media have learned little or nothing since whipping up popular hysteria over the tragic 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar from an undiagnosed infection.
The Sunday Independent, for instance, had reported that the woman in question, a refugee who had been raped before coming to Ireland, only discovered that she was pregnant when in her pregnancy’s second trimester; other papers reported that she had discovered this after eight weeks, but beyond this they have tended to telescope the story and omit crucial facts.
The Guardian reported that the woman “was refused an abortion even though at eight weeks she demanded a termination, claiming she was suicidal,” and that it was only after she threatened a hunger strike in protest against this decision that “local health authorities obtained a court order to deliver the baby prematurely… to ensure its safety.”
Other media outlets were little better, with The Sunday Times stating that the woman had “immediately sought” an abortion on discovering that she was pregnant, months later going on a “hunger and liquid strike” in the belief that “she had effectively been refused an abortion, or the ability to travel abroad for such a procedure, by the state”. This effective refusal to travel, according to The Sunday Times, was due to the woman’s “legal status in Ireland”.
It is difficult to know what to make of this in light of an interview with the woman in Tuesday’s edition of The Irish Times, which makes no mention of insurmountable legal difficulties.
On the contrary, interviewed by Kitty Holland and Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, the woman explained how when she sought the help of the pro-choice Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) she was advised that it could take six weeks to arrange the necessary documentation, but that several weeks later, with the process apparently in train, IFPA informed her that the cost of going to Britain for an abortion could be more than €1,500.
Far from legal limitations being the problem, this, at least according to The Irish Times, was the key issue: she was told that the problem was “the money”, and that “the State would not fund the costs”. Curiously, the interview does not mention whether or not the IFPA told her that there were other pro-choice groups that might be willing and able to help her financially, but on the face of it, it seems that this information was withheld.
On Monday The Irish Times cited a friend of the woman as saying that the woman “had been seeking information about authorities for up to three months before approaching a GP”, but this does not appear to be borne out by the following day’s interview.
According to the interview, the woman discovered she was pregnant at a medical assessment shortly after arriving in the State; the Irish Independent claims that this happens in a direct provision centre for asylum seekers, and The Irish Times’ interview reports the woman as saying that it was the nurse who assessed her who advised that another clinic could carry out a second pregnancy test.
As far as can be discerned from the interview, at no point between the eighth and 23rd week of her pregnancy did the woman deal with the State, far from being repeatedly ‘fobbed off’ by the authorities, as the Irish Independent reports her friends as claiming. Instead, she dealt exclusively with the IFPA, which around the time of an initial test, eight weeks and a day into her pregnancy, told her that “people like me are sent to England for abortions”.
By her account, the IFPA told her that it could take six weeks to arrange the necessary paperwork, but that she was 16 weeks pregnant when it became clear how expensive an abortion in England would prove.
Apparently not told of the possibility of financial help, she instead seems to have been led to believe that time was not pressing: “in England,” she was told, “they carry out abortions up to 28 weeks”.
If the woman was told this then she was misinformed; the 1967 abortion law indeed allowed for abortions in case of medical desirability up to 28 weeks, with abortions allowed beyond that point on only a small number of specific grounds, none of which would have been the case in this situation, but in 1990 the law was changed, reducing the regular limit for abortions from 28 weeks to 24 weeks.
It seems then that it was only after this that the woman became suicidal, and only after she had moved – to a different centre for asylum seekers, according to the Irish Independent – that a friend encouraged her to contact a GP and say that she was suicidal because of her pregnancy. Seemingly she did this in mid-July, which would have been in the 23rd week of her pregnancy; the GP, by the woman’s own account, referred her to a hospital, with her going there as the 24th week of her pregnancy began, at a point when her child would have been at the cusp of viability.
It seems that in the hospital she was initially told that an abortion would be impossible, at which point she resolved to stop eating in order to starve herself to death; although a court order was taken out to enforce hydration, it seems not to have been enforced, as instead she was told an abortion would be possible, but that she would need to eat to regain her strength for the operation.
After her strength was restored she was advised that there could be no abortion, but she was presented with a form signed by three doctors, acceding to her request for a termination of pregnancy but clarifying that her pregnancy should be terminated by delivery through caesarean section rather than by an abortion.
The woman says she accepted this decision as she “didn’t have a choice”. The child was delivered two weeks after she was accepted into hospital.
There are two victims in this story: a small child has been taken from the womb too early and is fighting for its life, while a young woman has been the victim of a rapist, a culture that left her terrified of pregnancy, a state unprepared to help pregnant asylum seekers, and a pro-choice charity that her own account suggests allegedly gave advice both incorrect and incomplete. In a story so sensitive, it beholds us all to get the facts right.
Greg Daly is a Catholic blogger