UPDATE: See today’s New York Times piece on the Halappanavar tragedy, which includes this:
Mr. Halappanavar told the newspaper that he still could not believe his wife was dead. “I was with her those four days in intensive care,” he said. “They kept telling me: ‘She’s young. She’ll get over it.’ But things never changed; they only got worse. She was so full of life. She loved kids.
“It was all in their hands, and they just let her go. How can you let a young woman go to save a baby who will die anyway?”
But Mr. Halappanavar said he saw no use in being angry. “I’ve lost her,” he said. “I am talking about this because it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
Although several bloggers have covered this tragic episode, Grania Spingies of Atheist Ireland is on the spot, and I wanted to add her perspective to the discussion. Note that abortion is still illegal or unobtainable in Ireland—any abortion, even when the mother’s life is endangered.
This is what happens when abortion is denied to women
by Grania Spingies
This is what happens when politics embroils itself with religious institutions.
Everybody has heard by now the story that broke in the early hours of Monday night in Ireland. Two weeks ago Savita Halappanavar died of septicemia resulting from medical complications when she was denied pregnancy termination after the diagnosis of a miscarriage had been made.
Her husband recounts that repeated requests for termination (in reality, an evacuation of the uterus) were refused because the fetal heartbeat was still present, and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”. She was left with a dilated cervix for three days until the fetal heartbeat ceased. Four days later she died.
Only yesterday io9 highlighted the question “What happens to women who are denied abortions?, and presented the results of a scientific study by a group at the University of California at San Francisco, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). This is the ugly Irish answer.
Ireland has a long and bloody history on the subject of abortion—in fact, on any subject relating to human reproduction. At every step of the way when attempts were made to modernize the country’s attitude to sex and relationships, the Roman Catholic Church and its supporters have fought hard to stop progress in its tracks and bring the country back in line with Catholic Stone Age morality, a morality in which reproduction is paramount regardless of the cost to parents and children alike.
In the land where an uncontested divorce takes on average 3-5 years to obtain, where contraceptives have only been available on demand for a couple of short decades, and where we are still dealing with the legacy of endemic institutionalization of child rape and torture by the Church, it’s no surprise that women can still be denied life-saving medical attention for the sake of honoring a dying fetus.
I should add a note in defence of the medical profession here in Ireland. Most doctors are not in favor of the current legislation, and in fact their own Medical Council says (in the words of Professor Eamon O’Dwyer):
“to withhold necessary treatment from a woman because of pregnancy is unethical as well as professional misconduct, even though such treatment might lead to the death of her unborn child. “
These doctors are caught in a legal nowhere-land, where their own medical guidelines are at odds with the inhumane law of the land. Follow one, and you flout the other. The law at the moment does not allow for abortion under any circumstance at all, although women have the “right” to leave the country for another to obtain one. Theoretically abortion is legal where it would save the life of the mother, but no government has ever written this into law, so in practice one cannot obtain one.
To demonstrate the mess that this issue creates in this country, here’s what O Dwyer said in the very same speech in which he elaborated on the Council’s policy:
“I believe I am entitled to say that there are no circumstances where the life of the mother may only be saved through the deliberate, intentional destruction of her unborn child in the womb.”
This is the sort of misinformation peddled by the anti-abortion lobby most vocal in Ireland, the not-as-Irish-as-they-seem Youth Defence. If you see someone advocating the position that the Savita case is one of medical negligence and has nothing at all to do with abortion, you can pretty much guarantee that you are witnessing an attempt at damage control from the Defence’s incessant stream of lies, misinformation and emotional blackmail.
What makes this position uglier is that Irish politicians have been dragging their heels for more than twenty years on this subject. After all this time, they are still terrified of the political clout that the Catholic Church has in Ireland. Displeasing the Bishops could translate to losing votes, or so they believe, and so they have flouted the ruling of Ireland’s own Supreme Court as well as that of the EU, and ignored all calls to legislate on abortion in even the most extreme cases. As Michael Nugent points out, as recently as ten years ago:
“the Irish Government tried to tighten the law again, with yet another constitutional referendum, again intended to make abortion unconstitutional even if a pregnant woman was suicidal.”
This situation hasn’t improved. In July of this year, a large group of politicians in the current ruling party announced that they would oppose legislation to liberalize abortion laws in this country. For all his passion and presumed bravery at taking on the Vatican on the subject of child abuse, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny announced rather loftily this October—in Time magazine, no less—that the abortion issue “is not of priority for government now.”
Kenny probably wishes he could walk back the cat on that one now, but as of last night the official line is that they need more time, more investigation, and that there is no evidence that a Catholic ethos prevented Savita from getting the life-saving treatment she needed.
This is sickeningly familiar to the public of Ireland, who have long been far more liberal than the government and church would have you believe. Over 60% of the public, a very clear majority, favors some form of legal abortion, and a mere 10% of doctors approve of the current legislation.
This case has caused public and international outrage, and it is possible that it may in the end prompt positive reform by the government of abortion laws. But none of this will do anything to remedy the outrageous and irrevocable loss of a bright young woman who had everything still ahead of her, for no good reason except to placate worshipers of a fictitious and angry god. Halappanavar should never have been put in this position, and neither should the thousands of other women residing in Ireland who are condemned to pain, suffering, isolation and stigmatization for the crime of an unwanted pregnancy.
Unfortunately, nothing is sure about how this appalling situation will be resolved.