COMMENT : Preserving life — Hina Hafeezullah Ishaq
Denying a woman access to legitimate abortion denies her the right to life and subjects her to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment
“Savita Halappanavar, who
was 17 weeks pregnant, died of septicaemia a week after presenting with back pain on 21 October at University hospital in Galway, where she was found to be miscarrying,” reported The Guardian. Savita’s death did not take place in any Third World developing country but in Ireland. Sadly, for Savita, who was a 31-year-old Indian dentist, Ireland is a Catholic country where abortion is illegal except when it is necessary to save a woman’s life. In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court (SC) held that in case of ‘real and substantial risk’ to a mother’s life or where there was the possibility of suicide, abortion would be a constitutional right, but the right would not exist if there was a risk to a mother’s health but not her life. This ruling was the result of the rape case of a 14-year-old girl ‘X’, who was suicidal because of unwanted pregnancy. When ‘X’ travelled to England to get an abortion, the Attorney General of Ireland got a stay from the Irish High Court, which was overruled on appeal to the SC with a four to one majority.
In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gave a judgement in ‘ABC vs Ireland’ case; ‘ABC’ being the three women who suffered serious health consequences upon denial of abortion services in Ireland. It was held that Ireland had violated its human rights obligations by failing to regulate access to abortion.
I have a friend who miscarried twice, within the span of a year; the first was a burst ectopic pregnancy, which resulted in removal of one tube and a near fatality, the second time round the foetus had no heartbeat. In spite of this, she could not bring herself to terminate the pregnancy, putting herself in grave danger. My friend, who was 16 weeks pregnant, was given a final warning by her doctor that she had to let them abort the foetus before the toxins invaded her body; mercifully for her, nature took its course and she was spared the horrendous decision. The decision to have an abortion can be agonising and excruciatingly painful for a mother, taking tremendous effort to acknowledge that a living part of oneself is going to be no more. This is something that can be understood by those who have actually had to suffer it.
The Pakistan Penal Code makes abortion, whether wilful or forced, an offence by provisions under isqat-e-haml and isqat-e-janin; however, if a miscarriage is caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of a woman or providing necessary treatment to her, it is not an offence. Mercifully, for the women of Pakistan, our doctors are quick to perform necessary procedures when the need arises. Our problem however is quacks, back-street clinics and incompetent midwives killing and infecting women during illegal abortions.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my dogs gave birth: two of her pups died during the night while one died in the womb. We rushed her to hospital, fearful that toxins would spread. After a gruelling and intensive treatment, spread over a period of one week, the doctors were able to save her life before she succumbed to the toxins in her body. Four days ago, our second dog gave birth; one of her pups was born alive, with all its organs outside the body. Watching it die a slow agonising death left my daughters distraught and grieving; imagine this for a human child. There are many abnormalities that can afflict a baby and leave it seriously deformed and in excruciating pain. With the advent of science have emerged a host of tests that can be carried out at the prenatal stage to help people make informed decisions. While personally I am ‘pro-life-choices’, with exceptions, I believe that in serious matters like foetal abnormalities or forced pregnancies in rape cases, it should be the mother’s decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy and have always advocated the provision of the ‘morning-after-pill’ in cases of rape brought to attention early, as a mandatory requirement in all hospitals. Pakistan needs to enact explicit laws defining legal abortions and making provisions for rape pregnancies and severe foetal abnormalities.
Savita Halappanavar’s husband claimed that she had told the health providers that she was neither Irish nor Catholic, thus entitling her to an abortion. I do not agree with this logic as a country’s laws, whether right or wrong, are applicable to all: citizens, residents and visitors alike. Savita had a right to termination of her pregnancy as she was miscarrying, which essentially posed a serious risk to her life; the fact that she lost her life seems more of a case of sheer medical negligence than of any religious belief. In the clear violation of the SC ruling, the doctors/hospital failed to provide her the necessary medical treatment: abortion. Even assuming that the foetus had lived, in view of the complications Savita had already suffered there was a high risk of severe abnormality, maybe even like our dog’s pup: would that kind of life even be considered ‘life’?
Ireland has failed to legislate adequately to protect women and to give them access to abortion services. Recently, in Poland, a 14-year-old rape victim, ‘P’ was hounded by pro-life groups and denied abortion by two hospitals, despite having a certificate declaring her pregnancy to be the result of rape. Poland has strict abortion laws but permits termination of a pregnancy if a woman’s life or health is endangered by the continuation of pregnancy, or the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act, or when the foetus is seriously malformed. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that there were numerous breaches of P’s rights and she should have had unhindered access to lawful abortion and held that by issuing a press release stating that they would not perform the abortion, the hospital authorities had violated her rights, as the details of her case should not have been made public.
Miscarriage or spontaneous abortion usually takes place in the first 20 weeks of a foetus’ life and that occurring in the first trimester is mostly nature’s way of preventing chromosomal abnormalities. The debate between ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ is nothing new. The former advocates full legal protection of embryos and foetuses, especially opposing the legalisation of induced abortions, while the latter advocates a woman’s right to control her own body, especially her right to an induced abortion. How far should both viewpoints be entertained is again a moot question. Pakistan has a horrifically high abortion rate, with illegal abortions for illegitimate and legitimate pregnancies both. While our people might be averse to contraceptives, surprisingly, there are few qualms about getting an abortion to curtail the number of offspring and aborting female foetuses. India, on the other hand, has an alarming rate of female foeticide.
Denying a woman access to legitimate abortion denies her the right to life and subjects her to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. While attempting to save the life of an unborn foetus, losing the life of a mother is nothing but criminal, unless it is the mother’s wish. Preserving life should have its limits and surely, the right of a mother to life over that of an unborn and sometimes slowly miscarrying foetus is worth preserving? Sadly, in Savita’s case ‘preserving life’ had other parameters.
The writer is an advocate of the High Court