Society

What Ireland Can Teach Poland About Abortion Rights

The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who was unable to get an abortion in Ireland, set off nationwide opposition to a ban on the procedure. What happens when a similar case arises in Poland?

A demonstrator rises a cloth hander during a pro-choice protest in Warsaw
Paweł Wroński

-Analysis-

WARSAW — Have Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his PiS political party allies ever heard about the tragedy that happened in Ireland eight years ago? Do they know what unfolded in a waiting room of the Galway Roscommon University Hospital?

They will remember that Irish anti-abortion laws had always been as restrictive as they are in Poland right now. But they know those laws changed two years ago — and it can be traced back to that hospital in central Ireland in 2012.

The patient was named Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist and amateur Indian dance instructor. She was 17 weeks pregnant. She said she was in pain and felt there was a problem with her pregnancy. Doctors found that the fetus was in very poor condition, but its heart was still beating. Irish law at the time only allowed abortion if the woman's life was in danger.

Savita's husband, Paraven Halappanavar, an engineer at a medical instruments company was told that "Ireland is a Catholic country and we can't terminate a pregnancy..." His wife was sent home, where she experienced excruciating pain for four days straight. Paraven demanded an abortion, pointing out that he practiced Hinduism and that the tenets of Catholicism did not apply to him or his wife. The doctors refused, fearing prosecution and imprisonment (in Ireland, a doctor faced possible life imprisonment for an abortion, though it usually turned into a 10-year sentence).

On October 28, 2012, Savita died from sepsis caused by the complications that followed her spontaneous miscarriage.

Paraven Halappanavar sued the Galway University Clinic, as well as the Irish government. Soon after, 20,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Dublin, demanding the lifting of the ban on abortion in the Irish Constitution.

Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis caused by the complications that followed her spontaneous miscarriage — Photo: Karl Burke/DPA via ZUMA Press

This ban had been quietly violated for years through abortion tourism practiced by Irish citizens traveling to Britain. The Catholic Church in Ireland remained steadfastly opposed to the lifting of the abortion ban, even while it extended its sympathy to Halappanavar's family. Bishop John Fleming explained that putting the life of an unborn child and its mother on the same level takes root in the teachings of the Church. According to the Bishop, this is why Ireland has the lowest rate of infant deaths: four per 100,000, while in the U.S. and the rest of the European Union, the number rises to 14 per 100,000.

Yet Savita's case awakened the conscience of the Irish public and, in 2018, in a referendum, 66.4% of the participating citizens voted to remove Article 8, banning abortion from the Irish Constitution. In 2019, a new law was introduced, giving women the choice to have an abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy. Savita Halappanavar's story had become a key element of the pro-choice campaign that led to the new legislation.

Here in Poland, because of the October 2020 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland, the PiS party is opening the way for tragedies like Savita's.

There is a risk that doctors will fear recommending an abortion even in cases where there is not necessarily a "threat to the life" but also the health, of the patient. In such cases, they face a three-year prison sentence and may feel safer not taking any decision.

There is a risk that doctors will fear recommending an abortion

Poland's ruling party plans to create perinatal hospices where women with difficult pregnancies can be kept under medical surveillance – proof that the PiS party is preparing for a scenario similar to the one Savita endured.

Another argument: the projected allowance of 20,000 zlotys ($5,300) for giving birth to a child with a severe defect. This allowance, called a "coffin payment" by some, is supposed to encourage women to give birth – and probably to take unnecessary risks.

The situation in Ireland doesn't always translate into Polish conditions. The two societies, although Catholic, are different. In Ireland, despite the strong position of the Church in 2012, the government did not have the same chance to use the media as the Polish government does to influence society. And this, I fear, will soon create a new pop culture model for women: modern saints. The ones who wanted to "give birth at all costs' in order to prove their faith.

Jarosław Kaczyński, who has spent years manipulating fundamentalist circles of the Polish right-wing to serve his own purposes, has for the first time become their hostage.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ