This past Friday, an Irish coalition government introduced a bill which weakens Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws. Debate over the bill follows the horrific death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a direct abortion that likely would have saved her life. The bill, among other things, would allow direct abortions in cases where the mother’s health was in danger—even in cases of suicide risk.
The church, in part because Catholic institutions would be compelled to do these abortions, has reacted strongly against the measure. The Irish Bishops, for instance, point out that abortion, “is never a remedy for suicidal ideation and therefore should never be cited as a justification for the direct killing of an innocent human being.” There is even talk of excommunication of Irish lawmakers depending on how this all plays out.
Sadly, this feeds into the worst stereotypes of the institutional Catholic Church. It is difficult for many to understand how the bishops, even on modest reforms like this one which are designed to protect the life and health of women, can be so extreme on abortion. If women are to flourish many we need to leave behind this antiquated way of thinking. Some even went so far as to say that Savita “died in the name of religion.”
But this simply misunderstands the facts of this tragic case. First, it is perfectly legal under Irish law to induce labor, even on a preterm child, to save the life of the mother. That Savita’s doctors did not do this is medical malpractice on their part, not a result of Ireland’s admirable and progressive insistence that their vulnerable prenatal children have equal protection of the law. Ireland remains one of the safest countries in the world for pregnant women– significantly safer than the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance, both of which allows broad access to direct abortion. Indeed, the medical science remains unclear on whether anything beyond indirect abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother.
But the energy in support of the Ireland’s shifting abortion law goes far beyond protecting women’s health. Pro-choice activists (both in Ireland and elsewhere) are seizing the moment as a chance to push their broader agenda forward. Declaring that Savita’s death “won’t be in vain,” they are beginning systematic pro-choice campaigns which, among other things, direct Irish women to Web sites where they can illegally obtain the abortion pill.
One might think that this agenda serves the interest of women, but a new Pew poll shows not only that women are more likely than men to claim that abortion is morally wrong, they are also more likely to want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Pro-life feminists have been explaining for decades how abortion rights paradoxically serve the sexual agenda of men, obscure the inequality of women, and force mothers into horrific situations where the “choice” to kill their child means anything but freedom.
These kinds of pro-life concerns are gaining ground. Of the laws that are enacted about abortion in the United States, the overwhelming majority of them give our prenatal children more protection of the law, not less. The abortion market shows this trend as well: there is only one clinic each remaining in Alabama and Mississippi, and there are reports that the last clinic in Delaware has been closed.
Unsurprisingly, these trends reflect a growing shift in public opinion. According to Gallup only 41 percent of Americans are pro-choice, a record low. The shift is even more dramatic among young people: only 37 percent of Millennials consider abortion to be morally acceptable. Especially because the last two generations became more pro-life as they got older, this trend is does not bode well for abortion activists.
Even after the malpractice which led to Savita’s horrible death, Ireland remains one of the safest places in the world for pregnant women. It is a great example of a developed country which refuses to choose between women and their prenatal children. They are not only on the right side of justice, they are on the right side of history.
Prof. Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University is the founding director of the Catholic Conversation Project and author of “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization” with Cambridge University Press.