This is a true story from a country in Europe, a country one would normally deem civilized.
A foreign woman (nation of birth unspecified) arrives in the European country, seeking asylum. Having been raped in her native land, she discovers after her immigration that she’s eight weeks pregnant. Wanting an abortion—being pregnant and unmarried would, she said, be a “great shame” in her culture—she discovers that her new country largely prohibits abortion except in cases when the pregnancy will cause the mother’s death. Those cases can include both the mother’s potential suicide or a condition of pregnancy that could endanger her life, but do not include rape, incest, or fetal deformity.
Scared about the shame that her pregnancy would bring upon her, the woman becomes suicidal, and, soon, after discovering her pregnancy, presents herself at the hospital requesting an abortion. She spends several weeks in the hospital being assessed by doctors and psychiatrists, for, according to law, obtaining a lawful abortion due to suicidality requires unanimous approval of a panel of two psychiatrists and an obstetrician.
The panel is convened. The psychiatrists concur that an abortion is warranted, but the obstetrician, while agreeing with the danger of suicide, doesn’t agree with the abortion, and it’s called off. By this time the woman is 21-23 weeks into her pregnancy.
In protest, she goes on a hunger strike, intending to kill herself through starvation or dehydration. The state straps the woman to a bed and forcibly hydrates her through a nasogastric tube. This is meant to keep her and the fetus alive until a viable baby can be removed via a Caesarian section.
Finally, about 25 weeks after conception, the woman consents to the Caesarian. The fetus is removed from her womb and given into state care. Reports are that it is healthy.
This draconian treatment occurred not in, say, Saudi Arabia, but in Ireland, and the law applying here—a new and supposedly liberalized one—is heavily conditioned by the wishes of the Catholic Church. Before 2013, no abortions were allowed in Ireland under any circumstances. Irish women who wanted them had to travel abroad, usually to England. But that, too, had been illegal until 1992, when Irish courts ruled that pregnant women could not be prevented from traveling even if authorities suspected they were doing so to violate the law. Still, Irish women who were (and are) too poor or too ill for such a journey were forced to stay home and bear the child.
Then came the highly publicized death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway. At 17 weeks pregnant, Halappanavar sought an abortion because her fetus was infected and she was miscarrying; the mother was infected as well. The hospital refused to give her an abortion, which was illegal even in her condition. On October 28, Halappanavar died of septicemia after the dead fetus was finally removed and the mother given antibiotics—too late.
This debacle led to Ireland’s passing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, supposedly remedying the problems with the Halappanavar case. But the “liberalization” consisted only of allowing abortion when the mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy itself or by resulting suicidal impulses—impulses caused by something like rape or incest. Rape or incest alone was not sufficient: A woman is, by law, forced to bear her rapist’s (or relative’s) baby, even if she doesn’t want it, so long as she isn’t suicidal. The law still allows a woman to leave the country to obtain an abortion, but in the case of this refugee, that may have been difficult, for she would have needed a special visa to re-enter Ireland and, so she was told, 1,500 Euros for travel expenses, which the state would not provide.
There are still some questions about this case. Some news sources report that she was 21 to 23 weeks pregnant, not eight, when she sought medical help. Further, we don’t know why the obstetrician, while agreeing that the woman was suicidal, refused to allow the abortion. It may be because there seems to be a loophole in the law, which stipulates that allowing an abortion because of suicide risk must be based on opinion “formed in good faith which has regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable.” A right-to-life mentality might construe this as allowing the alternative procedure that was actually used: Forcibly hydrating the woman until the fetus was viable, then cutting it out of her. Finally, the reasons why the woman ultimately consented to the Caesarian section are unclear. She was certainly under duress, and may well have been told that, being so far into the pregnancy, she couldn’t get an abortion anywhere else.
But all that is irrelevant. What we have is a draconian law that, in lieu of a legal abortion, allows a woman to be restrained, force-fed, and surgically invaded by the state. Only the most diehard right-to-lifers (i.e., the Catholic Church) would find that acceptable. But of course the strictures of the law were designed to placate the Church.
The Catholic Church hasn't shown any sympathy for the woman. Instead, the newest Catholic bishop of Ireland, Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin, went public with his opinion that the woman should have been forced to stay pregnant for longer:
“You are creating greater risks for the child by terminating pregnancy at an early stage,” he said.
He also said: “I don’t think that anybody has established the right of a mother to terminate the pregnancy because she feels that she’s at risk of suicide”.
Apparently the good Bishop has no problem with having the woman strapped down for another eleven weeks or so, force-fed while her fetus comes to full term.
This whole scenario conjures up images of the Catholic Inquisition: women tied to boards and tortured. This poor victim, after having been raped and forced from her native land, was then strapped down, intubated, and forced to serve as an incubator for a fetus that nobody wants—save the Catholic Church. And of course the Church had no problems with the previous law preventing all abortions, nor apparently with the present law that won’t allow abortion if a woman harbors a deformed fetus, or one produced by rape or incest. Even if the woman is suicidal or her life otherwise endangered by the pregnancy, the law's “preserve-unborn-life” clause always offers a loophole.
Official Catholicism has long been left in the dust by society’s opinions about women’s rights. This case has made palpably clear the Church’s barbarity and lack of concern for the well-being of pregnant women at the expense of Church doctrine. The people of Ireland want a liberalization of Ireland’s abortion laws, as does the United Nations, which claims that Irish law treats women like “vessels.” Only the Church, clinging to its antiquated view of “unborn human life,” objects.
How long can an institution continue to force a medieval morality on a country that doesn’t want it? Apparently, for many years. But it’s time for the people of Ireland to reject the retrograde and sexist mentality of Catholicism. Given the power of the Church in Ireland—similar to the power of the National Rifle Association in the U.S., which overrides the will of the people by threatening legislators with defeat—abortion reform will be slow. But even the Church must eventually bow to reason and public opinion. The only question is how many more women must suffer before the Irish government comes to its senses.
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.