Saturday, 17 November 2012

Savita Halappanavar - For want of a Catholic Country

This article comes courtesy of columnist Avril Casey, @Avril_Ladybird, from Dublin, Ireland.

Savita Halappanavar was 31 years old, married and 17 weeks pregnant with her first child when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway with back pain. She was found to be miscarrying and was told that her baby would not survive and that it should be over in a few hours. She was upset, but accepted the news and requested that the doctors induce labour. Instead of proceeding with what should have been a standard procedure, the consultant told her, “As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything”. What followed was a tragic and heartbreaking sequence of events. Savita spent three days in agonising pain, developed a fever and shakes, was vomiting and collapsed when she tried to walk. Her cervix had been fully opened for almost 72 hours, creating a large risk of infection. She ultimately developed septicaemia and died on Sunday the 28th October. 

Savita Halappanavar

This is a Catholic country

During her last few days, Savita repeatedly requested a termination but was told, callously, that they could not terminate because, “this is a Catholic country”. It’s a phrase that has been picked up by media across the globe. The Catholic Church has had a profound hold over the Irish people for centuries and has influenced everything from law to politics to education. The law in Catholic Ireland states that abortion is illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that situations where the woman’s life is at risk should be exempt. In somewhat of a paradox, our Constitution “acknowledges... the equal right to life of the mother and guarantees in its laws and... by its laws to defend that right”. However, five successive governments have since refused to legislate clearly on this issue, leaving physicians reluctant to take any action to terminate pregnancies. This has prompted the European Court of Human Rights to state that, because of Irish law, legal terminations were likely to not go ahead due to doctors’ fears of prosecution. 

Irish Times Abortion cartoon
© The Irish Times
 It is worth noting that in 2010 the European Court of Human Rights also found that the Irish government’s unwillingness to legislate for a right established in the Constitution amounted to a violation of women’s human rights. It seems that paradoxes abound in these waters because only days ago (November 13th), Ireland was granted one of three coveted seats for Western countries on the UN Human Rights council. In light of current events, it wouldn’t be surprising if the UN were now doing the political equivalent of desperately searching for the receipt of the item they bought so they could return it as it was ‘not fit for the purpose intended’. 

Protests at the death of Savita Halappanavar

If further evidence was needed of the detrimental effect this disharmony of law and Constitutional rights has, there is no need to look very far. As recently as April 2012, a group of four women got together to meet with Members of Parliament to ask why they could not access an abortion in Ireland after a diagnosis that, in each case, the foetus had “an abnormality incompatible with life”.

They were told that their baby would die in the womb or at delivery.

They were told that if the baby did die in utero, they would be expected to carry it to term.

They were told that they would not be granted an abortion in Ireland if their own life was at risk.

So they traveled – were forced to travel – to the UK where they could access a safe, legal termination of a pregnancy that was not viable anyway.

In 2010, Michelle Harte was terminally ill with cancer and was denied life-saving treatment because it would have resulted in a termination of her pregnancy. She, too, was forced to travel to the UK to seek proper and humane medical treatment for her illness.

Savita’s story has shocked and saddened the Irish population since its announcement. Less than 24 hours after the story broke, a protest took place outside the offices of Parliament and at various other locations around Ireland and abroad. On Kildare Street, the 2,000 or so people who gathered were seated for a five minute silence in remembrance of Savita and in reflection of this tragic, needless loss of life. There were speeches. One speaker told of Savita’s vibrant energy and how she will be missed, especially for her involvement in the community and her organisation of the “Diwali” festival in Galway, a celebration of the Indian ‘festival of lights’. The festival has been cancelled due to her loss. Another speaker shot from the hip and her heart when she mourned Savita’s death and cursed the government for treating its country’s citizens like dirt. TD Clare Daly, who tabled the bill for legislation in April this year, spoke passionately about the need for clear legislation to avoid any further tragedies like Savita’s.



It is unspeakable that a country such as Ireland, which was in the OECD’s top 10 Better Life Index in 2011, should still withhold life-saving medical intervention from a pregnant woman.

It is shocking that there is no legislation in place to protect the safety of a woman carrying an unviable foetus.

It is galling that Savita Halappanavar died in a hospital after spending three days in agony while being denied proper medical intervention.

It is appalling that Michelle Harte was denied treatment for cancer while pregnant.

It is heart-wrenching that many more women must travel abroad to access necessary life-saving interventions while such humane treatments are criminalised in their home country.

Savita’s husband, Praveen Halappanavar was quoted as saying, “if it had happened in the UK or India, the whole thing would have been over in a few hours. We just pray now, that wherever she is, she is happy.” 

Time magazine cover Enda Kenny

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, when interviewed by Time magazine in September of this year, was asked about the stance of abortion legislation in Ireland. He said, “I think this issue is not of priority for government now”. Because the government were so unwilling to prioritise women’s health, a woman is dead. Enda Kenny and every other government representative need to prioritise this issue now. The electorate already have. As Liam Ward (@liamdv4) pointed out on Twitter, “The Irish State can pass a law within hours to save banks but takes 20+ years to pass a law to save women’s lives”.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, things need to change in Ireland asap!

    ReplyDelete

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