Guest post: Abortion and the Savita Halappanavar affair

November 15, 2012 • 4:08 am

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.

Vigil in Cork City November 13th 2012

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.

Protest in Dublin November 13th 2012

55 thoughts on “Guest post: Abortion and the Savita Halappanavar affair

  1. This is one of the more shameful events to come out of Ireland for some years, including the steady drip-drip of revelations of child-buggery by priests and employees of the Catholic Church.
    But it’s hardly news : thirty years ago when my father would travel over to Dublin to visit a friend and former colleague, he had to take them stocks of condoms ; twenty years ago, he was having to take over condoms for their children ; 10 years ago when a teenage (13 or 14) girl who was pregnant after rape by a family member (father or uncle, I forget ; it’s irrelevant) was stopped from travelling to Britain on the grounds that she might obtain an abortion. It certainly went through court, but I forget how high it had to go.
    On the other hand, revolting cases like this are severely undermining the Catholic Church in Ireland. Which I’m sure is damn-all consolation to Savita’s doubly-bereaved family.
    One minor but significant point that other reporting adds is that, at the time of her miscarriage and asking for an abortion of the non-viable foetus, Savita (or her family) pointed out that she was neither Catholic nor Christian, but Hindi ; so the moral strictures of those churches really are irrelevant here.
    I note that there is no report of the doctors involved asserting that they had a personal objection to performing the abortion, merely that they weren’t allowed to under the law. Which begs the question of the communal testicle count of their professional body – seems to be approaching zero. (Is there a feminine version of “grow some nuts!” ?)

    1. 10 years ago when a teenage (13 or 14) girl who was pregnant after rape by a family member (father or uncle, I forget ; it’s irrelevant) was stopped from travelling to Britain on the grounds that she might obtain an abortion.

      Not to get too hyperbolic, but not allowing a non-criminal citizen to leave your country because of what they might do/because they disagree with how you govern is the sort of thing the USSR did and China and North Korea still do.

      If you find yourself preventing people from “voting with their feet,” that’s a pretty clear indication that your form of government has failed in some important respect.

  2. I agree with Michelle. A great peice of writing Graine. I think you speak for everybody with a heart or conceince in this country. Keep up the good work.

    1. Are you sure that it’s a necrotic abcess? To me, it looks like a god-induced ectopic pregnancy which must be allowed to come to term. I don’t think that the bible ia particularly explicit about dates and schedules for god-induced pregnancies, so a 12-15 month “pregnancy” should be appropriate.
      Of course, we’re talking hyperbole here ; under such circumstances, denying or delaying treatment would be unethical. Just because they’re priests, doesn’t mean that one should let them drag you down to their level.
      I’m sermonising wearing a teeshirt that proclaims “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion!” Oh, the Vogonity!

    1. That depends which god it is that exists. If it’s the Christian god, clearly it rejoices in human suffering, and indeed suffering generally. The symbol of the Christian religion is an instrument of torture.

      1. I agree the christian doGs are disgusting, blood sucking and spooky. Even if they were real no moral person should worship them.

        See christians? This is why nobody likes you! Stop asking the question, ‘Mommy why doesn’t anybody like christians?”, the question should be ‘Mommy why are christians so bloody disgusting?”

        1. There probably is no god. Chill out 🙂 one of the problems with believing in any kind of supernatural almighty being is that you subsequently believe in some kind of absolute morality which makes actions like this make sense.

    2. In the words of Mo, Jesus’ bed-mate, “There shall be smiting.”
      , I don’t think they actually do say that. But they think it.

      1. Even if they don’t believe and surely don’t agree with, they might have a deep fear due to the brainwashing indoctrination that they have been exposed to throughout their lives.

  3. If you do nothing, two people die. If you do something, anything, one of them may live. Why is that so hard for some to see?

    1. It seems, when it comes right down to it, they ALWAYS put the health of “the unborn” OVER that of the woman. Even if “the unborn” is non-viable, horribly deformed, mentally defective, missing a brain, parasitic, etc. And I wish they would just come out and say it, instead of pretending otherwise.

      1. Catholic (and fundavangelical) Christian god’s plan may include a miracle prior to death of either the unborn, the pregnant woman, or both. Or not. Death of one, or both, or neither, is also god’s plan. None of no doctor’s or husband’s, etc., bidness. So keep your mortal ass out of the way, and your mouth shut.

      2. “[T}hey ALWAYS put the health of “the unborn” OVER that of the woman. Even if “the unborn” is non-viable, horribly deformed, mentally defective, missing a brain, parasitic, etc.”

        That’s because it isn’t about the life of the “unborn,” or even about what God wants. It’s about controlling women’s sexuality, about making them understand that not-for-procreation sex has consequences, inescapable consequences, consequences they will have to live with for the rest of their lives — and they better never forget about that.

  4. Is there anything that those of us outside Ireland can do to help?

    I really want the crazy christian bullshit to stop!

  5. Some creep from the RCC in Ireland was interviewed on BBC yesterday and I heard it. his point was basically: Septicemia killed Sativa, and it would have killed her if she had had an abortion or if the fetus had miscarried differently.

    How’s that for full-on denial? I was literally gaping when I heard him say this.

    1. That is the approved Pro-Life (or Youth Defence as they like to call themselves) response.

      Yes, they don’t do reality.

    2. Funny how this weaseling out of reality – let’s just call it lying, actually – shows that they know perfectly well how morally abject- and amazingly impopular – their stance is.

      If they had some balls they would just say “well we are against abortion and if these are the consequences, so be it”. That would be morally disgusting but consistent. Instead they wriggle so they can have it both ways, which is, frankly, even more disgusting.

  6. This makes me sick to my stomach. My heart goes out to the husband and the rest of their family.

    I was listening to a fragment of the BBC story yesterday. A commentator from Ireland claimed that the reason why the Irish government never followed up on the Supreme Court decision (allowing abortion when it would save the mother’s life) was that it would be very unpopular. I couldn’t pay full attention to the broadcast, as I was driving. Did I misunderstand what she said? I always believed that the majority of the Irish population favored at least some exceptions to the strict anti-abortion rules.

    1. One of the links in the piece has a very good explanation of the history of the case.

      Essentially, successive Irish governments have been terrified of the political clout of the Catholic church in swaying the vote against them in elections. It is true that it would certainly try. It isn’t clear that they would succeed. The one thing the Irish government did try to do after the Supreme Court ruling was to attempt to get the public to agree to a total ban on women going to the UK for an abortion. Mercifully, the Irish public voted against that.

      But read Michael’s piece:

      1. Grania, thank you for your reply. I read Michael Nugent’s piece and I forwarded the link to several friends; very illuminating.

        I still can’t get over the bishop’s statement quoted there, claiming that Irland is “one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother”. That in the wake of this unspeakable tragedy. As you noted elsewhere in this thread, the don’t do reality.

  7. 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.”

    As a Boomer age, I know the feeling. You get over it sort of, but you never forget them.

    What happens next is obvious.

    This has to stop!!! No more unnecessarily dead women because of some Oogedy Boogedy religion and malevolent christofascists.

    The Irish have to do this themselves. Most of us aren’t in Ireland and have no influence there.

    But the USA has tens of millions of forced birthers/female slavers who would do the same thing in a heartbeat if they could. They say so often and loudly.

    1. This a lot of use in being angry. Anger gives you the energy to fight for change, it is a highly motivating emotion which should not be underestimated.

  8. Grania (and/or any other residents of Ireland), I’m thinking of telling the Irish Tourism Board that I will boycott Ireland until those responsible are punished AND abortions for the health of the mother are legal.

    Do you think this is a good idea, or will it do more harm than good?

    1. I think that even just letting the government know that is it under international scrutiny and condemnation will help 🙂

    2. Having an Irish girlfriend and knowing plenty of her friends there, I would say this does more harm then good.

      Mind you, the majority of Irish have repeatedly shown, through various referenda, that they want a fairly liberal legislation on abortion. The successive governments have dragged their feet. No point in punishing the Irish, and the politicians are not hit by fewer tourists.

      I would suggest you do go, and when there find a worthy cause to donate some euros to so they can fight this fight. Meanwhile enjoy a beautiful country (with a tad too much rain 😉 ).

  9. My understanding is that in the Middle Ages this was church policy on difficult childbirths when both mother and fetus would die unless the fetus was either dismembered and killed or delivered by caesarian section, then inevitably fatal for the women: The woman and the fetus were considered equally valuable and therefore it was permitted to kill either one to save the other. It seems that similar reasoning would have led to a timely abortion for Savita, and saved her life.

    If my understanding is correct, perhaps an appropriate slogan for changing current Catholic policy should be “Ahead to the Middle Ages!”

    1. See my comment above: The RCC is in full denial that any pregnancy can cause any woman at any time to die. Full stop. Therefore, there is nothing to discuss (from their POV): The abortion simply kills the fetus and does nothing for the woman (again, from their POV.)

      As Grania said above: They don’t do reality.

    1. There are tens of millions of them in the USA.

      Probably Rick “New Dark Age Pope” Satanorum is to.

      Of course, his wife was in the exact same position as Savita. And had an abortion that he claims wasn’t really an abortion.

      These people are all hypocrites anyway. The only moral abortion is their abortion.

    2. There are plenty of them in the GOP and the election results will do nothing to dissuade their intentions (though happily it will probably help to prevent their taking real action — there are a lot of old SCOTUS Justices sitting there now …)

  10. I do business in Ireland regularly and I like the place, the people, the countryside (and the alcoholic beverages). I don’t even mind the very narrow roads and driving on the left.

    This stuff makes me feel weird about going there (not that I can avoid it short of quitting my job, which I’m not in a position to do.) And, since, none of my Irish colleagues EVER discuss religion, I don’t know who I’m going to mortqally offend by bringing it up and destroy an important working relationship. Ugh.

    1. I think you’d find most people open to discussing it. The average citizen is not particularly religious and are Catholic for cultural reasons only. Only a minority accept (or even know of) the Church’s teaching on most subjects.

      Most of them, like yourself, don’t want to offend. A colleague I spoke to this week about abortion went from admitting to being pro-choice in limited cases to being pro-choice in pretty much all cases when she realized what my stance was.

  11. Make no mistake the reason they won’t bring in the abortion law is because the country has more old people than young and the votes mainly come from the older generation , it is all political . What is best for the woman means nothing to the powers that be and sadly this case is not the only one it has a history of cases like this . look at the thousands of young women who leave for the UK to get an abortion and thats only if they manage to get over before anyone knows . Ireland is backwards and needs to move into the 21st century

  12. I presume that the situation in Ireland will only change when the population are given the chance to elect their own representatives and make their own laws?

    1. Do you know that we’re talking abot the Irish Republic (capital Dublin), not the Ulster colony (which sends representatives to Westminster)?

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