The shocking story behind Ireland’s low maternal death rate

One of the ‘facts’ trumpeted by the anti-abortion lobby in the wake of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar’s death in a Galway hospital is that Ireland has the lowest maternal death rate in the world. It is said to be one death for every 100,000 live births, which is an enviable record indeed.

Except that this figure needs to be interrogated. It’s slightly dated but the source for the data seems impeccable. It’s in a report on ‘Maternal Mortality in 2005 estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Bank.’ This widely-quoted figure compares rather well with all developed countries. In Britain eight women died every year for every 100,000 live births in 2005 and the US maternal mortality rate is 11.

Separately, a UNFPA report puts the Irish figure at two for 2005 and three for 2008 – still an amazingly low figure. Strangely, both reports fail to mention one startling fact that flies in the face of easy reportage: that thousands, of Irish women journey to Britain every year in order to get their unwanted pregnancies terminated privately.

This figure is disputed – the most widely-cited figure is 4,000 but it could be much higher. One charity, the Abortion Support Network, gives needy women grants of between £20 and £700 pounds to travel to Britain from the Republic of Ireland, where Savita died, and from neighbouring Northern Ireland, which is a British province. This charity says it alone helped 335 women from the Irish Republic over the last three years – including 19 rape victims, 21 with severe health problems and 21 girls under 16. A further six had attempted suicide in the recent past and a 14-year-old girl had tried self-abortion.

You can access the charity’s website here: Abortion Support Network

By any standards, these are shocking figures – but this reality does not find a reflection in the many UN agency reports on maternal deaths in Ireland. The Abortion Support Network has helped a further 238 women from Northern Ireland obtain abortions in England. Although Catholics are in a minority in this province, it is the only part of Britain where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. Which basically means that women from one part of Britain have to travel to another part in order access abortion services – not just that they have to pay extra for these services whereas the rest of the population doesn’t!

Nevertheless, even in Northern Ireland hospitals, women with life-threatening conditions can have their pregnancies terminated – unlike in Ireland.

None of this is to deny the fact that the Republic of Ireland has a highly developed heath service as befits any developed country. So the overall health indicators are bound to be good in comparison with the rest of the world. But these figures are predicated on the shocking fact that Ireland is effectively outsourcing its abortion services. Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, tells me at least 6,000 Irish women travel to Britain every year in order to access abortion services.

In fact, Clarke, an American who works with a group of 30 volunteers based in Britain, thinks the figure of 6,000 to be an under-estimation because it only takes into account those women who: a. turn up at a British clinic and b. decide to give their Irish address. There are hundreds more who travel to Spain, Holland and Belgium to terminate their unwanted pregnancies. And hundreds more stay with friends in Britain and/or don’t give their Irish addresses.

Once in Britain, they have to pay a minimum fee of £335 for the abortion – usually more, going up to £2000. With Ireland deep in recession, such sums are not easy to get hold of, certainly for young women who are faced with the twin burden of stigma and lack of funds.

These are desperate young women because the stigma surrounding unwanted pregnancies in Ireland is horrible. Women who have been raped are afraid to go to rape crisis centres or even report the rape to police because they are afraid they will be forced to have the baby of their rapist.

And it’s not just young women. According to a report in the Herald, an increasing number of Irish women over 35 are having abortions. Among the 4,402 – that’s 12 a day – Irish women who had to turn up in British clinic for abortion services in 2010, there were 836 women who were 35 years or older – up from 781 in 2009 and 720 in 2008. The recession may be a factor here.

There is a religious, social and political context to the allegations that Savita died because hospital staff refused to terminate her unsafe pregnancy. The existence of a highly restrictive and criminal abortion law means women in Ireland can vote and even be President, but they can’t choose to terminate their pregnancies.

And the fact of the matter is that within Europe, Ireland is the only country whose women have leave in thousands every year to access a basic clinical service that is denied to them by the state. Every UN agency is aware of the situation, but they won’t talk about it.

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