Irish Case Shows Need for Clarity in Abortion Legislation Worldwide

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Last week, the world’s attention was captured by Savita Halappanavar, a young woman who died in an Irish hospital after being denied a voluntary abortion. In hearing her story, it is difficult not to see parallels between Savita’s case and the fates of so many unnamed women in parts of the world where the continued need for legal access to safe abortion services is so great.

In Ireland, voluntary abortions currently are permitted only to save the life of the mother. However, there is no legislation clarifying exactly when and under what circumstances doctors are permitted to provide this service. It was in the context of this confusion where Savita, in the midst of a miscarriage, asked for and was denied the abortion that might have saved her life.

In Mozambique, women face a similar challenge. The current penal code, a remnant of colonial rule, prohibits the provision of abortion services regardless of circumstances. In the 1980s the Mozambican Ministry of Health passed a decree stating abortions could be performed in central-level hospitals to save the mother’s life, but did not revise the old penal code to reflect this. These conflicting regulations, similar to those in Ireland, mean women and their providers are often unclear about when abortion services are permitted, and where they can be received. As a result, many women in Mozambique seek illegal, unsafe abortions from untrained providers. Although it is difficult to measure the toll this takes on women and girls specifically in Mozambique, estimates for all of sub-Saharan Africa suggest 14 percent of all maternal deaths are due to complications from these unsafe abortions.

Last year in Mozambique, Pathfinder International led the establishment of the Coalition for the Defense of Sexual Rights, comprised of more than a dozen civil society groups. The coalition currently is working to revise the Mozambican penal code to not only expand access to safe abortion services, but also to provide greater clarity as to when, where, and how women can receive these services. It is critical that, in light of Savita’s tragedy, similar action is taken in Ireland and other countries where laws remain unclear—ensuring not only broader access to these necessary services, but also that there is never a hesitation to provide services because of legal confusion.

Julia Monaghan is Pathfinder's Capacity Building Specialist. She recently returned from several months in Pathfinder's Mozambique office.

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