A personal tragedy which shattered an Indian family living in Ireland has catalysed that country’s political class to debate and overhaul one of its oldest and most restrictive laws. Savita Halappanavar, who left Karnataka with her husband to raise a family in Ireland, suffered a fatal miscarriage in October 2012 after being denied the abortion she requested. Her shocking and preventable death has not been in vain. Last week, members of the Irish Parliament’s lower house, the Dáil Éireann, passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, 2013, which allows medical practitioners to terminate a pregnancy if it poses a “substantial” or “immediate” risk to the mother’s life. The law heeds the recommendations of an investigative report commissioned by Ireland’s Health Service Executive, which lambasted extant regulations that deterred Mrs. Halappanavar’s doctors from performing a life-saving abortion, rendering them insensitive to her health. Upon its final enactment, the Bill will offer considerable latitude to Ireland’s doctors in evaluating and, where needed, aborting risky pregnancies on a case-to-case basis, presumably in consultation with patients and their families. Nevertheless, the law is still some distance away from embracing a ‘pro-choice’ approach: an amendment introduced by women TDs that would have permitted the termination of pregnancies arising from rape or incest failed to win support in the Dáil.
If this development highlights the declining influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which is staunchly opposed to abortion, in Irish politics, the Church has left no stone unturned to defeat the Bill. Not all Catholic countries, however, have opened their doors to progressive abortion law. Latin America’s record on this count has been abysmal. Six countries in the region still endorse a blanket ban on abortion — among them Chile, where an 11-year-old girl, pregnant after being raped by her mother’s partner, was in the news recently for announcing her decision to “have the baby.” Far from expressing their concern at the girl’s declaration — doubtless extracted through coercion — Chilean lawmakers have, rather deplorably, given their thumbs-up to it. One politician claimed the child was “prepared” to be a mother, given that her menstrual cycle had begun. He later apologised. President Sebastian Piñera has waded straight into the controversy by praising the girl’s “depth and maturity.” If only depth and maturity were transferable attributes, the girl could pass them on to Mr. Piñera and other politicians around the world who continue to deny women their rights to reproductive health and autonomy over their bodies.