In the lead-up to the US Presidential election last week, many US-based feminist friends of mine were passing around information and charts with titles like ‘What would America be like without Roe v Wade?’ and ‘We need Planned Parenthood!’. What would it be like, they wondered, to live in a country with no abortion rights? No comprehensive family planning and reproductive health experts with whom to discuss every option facing someone with an unwanted pregnancy?
I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like this.
Here we have Savita Halappanavar. Savita was 34 and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Savita’s foetus died, and it poisoned her from the inside out. Savita’s husband, Praveen, watched his unborn child lose viability for life, and then watched his wife slip away after it.
Savita’s doctors watched the couple struggle to keep it together. They listened to her plead for a termination of the pregnancy, and they said no. They would not remove the unviable, failing foetus from her uterus.
Put it another way: they would not remove the tissue which caused septicaemia to spread through her body.
When you say it like that, it does sound rather barbaric, doesn’t it?
This was not a matter of law. I’ve written a comprehensive post on Irish abortion law before, linked here. That post was from the day some archaic Catholic windbag in the Dáil made some entirely misguided remarks about the sex lives of people other than herself (and therefore, not her business), and then the Dáil went on to vote down a private member’s bill to enforce the Supreme Court’s judgment in the X case.
The X case is twenty years old this year. Ms X was 14 and pregnant as the result of a rape. She wanted to go to England for a termination, because – understandably – the situation was making her suicidally desperate. The Government got wind of the plan and took out an injunction to stop her going. Ms X and her family fought it all the way to the Supreme Court; they were vindicated, eventually, but by then Ms X had miscarried.
The precedent set by that case allows a doctor in Ireland to perform an abortion if there is ‘a real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother. I am not a doctor, but even I know that septicaemia is a rare but recognised side-effect of some miscarriages. It is definitely real, and it’s about as substantial as risks come. (Grateful here to Dr Muiris Houston in the Irish Times for this article on risk in miscarriage.)
That was decided twenty years ago.
This country remains abysmal for women’s rights. It is downright humiliating to turn around to our European and American neighbours, hat in hand, and say ‘this exists, and we haven’t done anything about it.’ It is an absolute joke that our politicians – especially our women in positions of influence – do not stand up before the country and bang down doors until we get a proper debate, a referendum, a Yes campaign. It is so very harmful that our doctors will not perform a procedure which, if necessary, they could validate under current case law.
But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? This is the status quo. No doctor will be the first to hang out their shop sign and perform terminations, because they need to know they won’t be struck off the medical register. No political party will take up the cause wholeheartedly, because this administration have enough on their hands without fighting another referendum campaign that might fail – and worst of all, yes, it might actually fail. As a rule, young Irish people are mostly in favour of abortion on demand, but young people are not the bankable demographic that you depend upon to win a popular vote. The Catholic moralists just have to tell their side that God says ‘no’, and therefore, ‘no’ will be said. Makes you wonder what Jesus would have thought of that.
There is no redeeming the death of Savita Halappanavar. I am glad the HSE are investigating the matter; I can tell you that if I were in her husband’s position, lawyers would be involved (and probably are). I’m glad her story is getting the publicity it deserves.
Just… let’s remember today, okay? Let’s have the outrage and the hurt we’re feeling to galvanise us, feminists and secularists and progressives of any gender. Let’s keep up a steady hammering on that door, and when it opens, let’s grab the opportunity with both hands. Let’s remember. Let’s work.
Let’s never have this happen again.