What If Religious Fanaticism Killed Someone You Love?
Protestors hold pictures of Indian Savita Halappanavar as they gather outside Leinster House during a demonstration in favour of abortion legislation in Dublin, Ireland. Ireland's tough abortion laws came under fire on Wednesday following the death of an
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Last week, a young Indian man in Ireland went public about the death of his wife, Savita Halappanavar. A week later, her name, picture, and tragic story are known by millions. Now the husband, Praveen, has launched a fight to ensure that no woman ever again is refused a lifesaving abortion. Her parents have requested that the Indian government bring diplomatic pressure to bear. Their goal is to clarify and, if need be, to amend Irish abortion law: “We lost our only daughter due to this illogical law…. If that law is changed, we will think that our daughter was sacrificed for a good cause.” “Maybe Savita was born to change the laws here,” says Praveen. It is, perhaps, the only possible sense in her otherwise senseless death.
Savita was 31 when she died after being denied an abortion during a second trimester miscarriage. As a dentist, she not only felt the infection in her body, she understood it. According to her husband she asked repeatedly for the medical staff at her Irish hospital to end the failed pregnancy that was poisoning her blood and would ultimately cause her organs to fail. She was told, “This is a Catholic country.” She had wanted a baby. Then she merely wanted to have less pain and to live. Instead, thanks to what Catholic ethicists call their “ culture of life” she is dead.
Praveen carried Savita’s body home to India then returned to Ireland where he works as an engineer for Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices. Is he haunted, I wonder, by the irony as well as the loss? An engineer is devoted rigorously to evidence, to questions of what works and what doesn’t, to understanding the real world effects of decisions. His ability to apply the scientific method carried him and Savita out of India to a place where ideology rather than science ultimately dictated medical practice. Had they been in Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore when her fetus started dying, she probably would have lived. Instead, Indians woke up to headlines proclaiming, “ Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist,” and the evening news in their home state of Karnataka ran a banner that said, “Faith over Life.”
For years now, the Catholic Bishops have been trying to draw a moral equivalence between embryos and persons, as if self-replicating human DNA were what made us precious. If ever there was a story that exposes the vast chasm of difference between a fetus and a person, it is this one. Savita and her fetus lay in the same hospital dying. The fetus simply slipped out of existence, as embryonic humans do; in fact, as most embryonic humans do. Savita died like a woman dies. She felt pain, and pleaded for it to be relieved. She knew she existed, was afraid, and expressed her fear. She argued against the authorities who refused to terminate her failing pregnancy: “I am neither Irish nor Catholic.” And when she died, she tore asunder a whole community of people into whose lives she had woven the fabric of her own. Her mother struggled to comprehend: “In an attempt to save a 4-month-old fetus they killed my 30-year-old daughter.” The Hindu community in Galway cancelled the Diwali festival she had been helping to organize, and where she had performedclassical dance with Praveen in past years. And when Praveen when public with their story, thousands of people took to the streets in a cry of anguish that rang across Ireland and India.
This is what is real: A woman feels pain. A woman feels fear. A woman knows she exists. A woman wants to live. She will fight and plead even when she is being poisoned to death by toxins in her blood or in our culture. A woman is a daughter, a friend, an organizer, a lover. Sometimes she is a dentist. Sometimes a man loves her enough to carry her broken body halfway around the globe.