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More bizarre situations will emerge unless we say women are not vessels

If you believe that mothers should come first when being treated medically, then the eighth needs to be repealed, writes Sam Elliot.

Sam Elliot

THE HISTORY OF the Eighth amendment is more akin to an alphabet. Six anonymous women – A, B, C, D, X, and Y – have been the subject of cases resulting from the complicated legal mess emanating from the Eighth Amendment.

Every case has been followed by controversy, and calls for change. However, 20 years after the X case, it seemed that those calls had mostly fallen on deaf ears.

On 28 October 2012, a woman began to miscarry. She sought treatment at University Hospital Galway.

Upon admission, she repeatedly requested an abortion. It was denied by medical staff who believed that she was not entitled to a lawful termination. She was instead given antibiotics. Two days later, the woman collapsed, suffering from septic shock. Treatments were unsuccessful, and she died on the 28 October 2012.


Her name was Savita Halappanavar. She was a 31-year-old married dentist from Belgaum, India. Two things strike me as different about Savita. The first is that she was ‘normal’. Not in a poor state of mental health, nor suffering from preexisting medical conditions. The second is that she was not anonymous – Savita kept her name.

It is easy to dehumanise those facing abortion. To think that they are exceptional. That they are young women who made a foolish decision. That they are irresponsible. That they are sluts. That they are murderers. It is easy to hide them behind a letter, and to refuse to change the law that caused their suffering.

Savita’s death challenged these perceptions. The HSE report lead by Professor Arulkumaran named legal uncertainty – caused by the Eighth Amendment – as a causal factor in her untimely passing. A termination would have saved her life. She was entitled to this treatment under the judgment in the X case.

Until 2013, however, Ireland refused to back this judgment with legislation.


The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was hailed as a solution to the series of cases. Simply put – it wasn’t. The overly-restrictive process replaced uncertainty with bureaucracy, and did little to liberalise the law on abortion overall. The cases continued.

In April 2014, Miss Y arrived in Ireland. She had been raped in her home country. She subsequently discovered that she was pregnant, and sought an abortion. Despite the two psychiatrists on the required panel attesting that she was suicidal, she was denied an abortion. She had previously attempted to travel to the UK for an abortion, but was arrested on arrival for illegally entering the country.

The foetus was delivered by caesarian three months later, when viable.

In December 2014, a pregnant woman – known only as PP – was declared brain dead as a result of a head injury. She was subsequently placed on life support in order to preserve the pregnancy.

Doctors in both hospitals wherein PP was treated believed that the presence of a foetal heartbeat required them to maintain the woman’s rapidly decaying body. Three weeks later the High Court clarified that she could be disconnected.

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Whilst this may appear to be a sensible judgment, it is arguable that it would allow for a dead body to be used as an incubator where the foetus may eventually become viable. Once again, the Eighth Amendment has put reason out of reach in order to dogmatically protect the unborn.

To quote Dr Mairead Enright of UCC:

Doctors in court repeatedly asserted that they and their colleagues felt bound by law to pursue a course of action which subjected a woman to treatment which they recognised as not only extraordinary but grotesque.

Until we repeal the Eighth, there will be more cases. More women will suffer. More bizarre situations will emerge, that could be easily remedied in any other European legal system. In the eyes of the law women will also be considered as vessels for their fetus, preventing them coming first when they need medical treatment. Our shameful alphabet will continue to grow.

If you believe that we need to change the law in any form – be it allowing abortion for rape victims, in cases of FFA, or on demand – then you need to ask for a referendum on the Eighth. If you believe that mothers should come first when being treated medically, then the Eighth needs to be repealed.

If you want us to treat women with dignity, the path is clear.

Sam Elliot is a recent graduate of DCU’s BCL programme (1.1). I’ve previously been a committee member of the DCU Sociolegal Studies Review, and represented the university as an intern in the Supreme Court. 

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Sam Elliot

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