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Woman Dies After Being Denied Abortion: When Religious Rules Trump Science

Ireland's anti-choice policies lead to a woman's death, and to domestic and international outcry.
 
 
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Picture received from the Irish Times on November 14, 2012 shows Indian national Savita Halappanavar, who died after allegedly being refused a termination of her pregnancy at a hospital in Galway, western Ireland.
Photo Credit: Via Irish Times

 
 
 
 

Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland after being denied a pregnancy termination, was a young wife eager to have more children when she learned that her pregnancy went wrong.

A Hindu, she organized celebrations for her expat community in Galway, one of Catholic Ireland’s more liberal cities.

Even as she begged the hospital to abort her doomed pregnancy, suffering and in horrible pain, they refused to do so until the fetal "heartbeat" faded away, telling her, “this is a Catholic country.”

From the Irish Times article, here is her husband’s account of the tragedy:

“Savita...was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby, could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’....

The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.

“The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”

Listen to the Times’ full interview with her husband here.

Dr. Jen Gunter blogged from a doctor’s perspective about what she thinks must have happened:

As there is no medically acceptable scenario at 17 weeks where a woman is miscarrying AND is denied a termination, there can only be three plausible explanations...

1) Irish law does indeed treat pregnant women as second-class citizens and denies them appropriate medical care. The medical team was following the law to avoid criminal prosecution.

2) Irish law does not deny women the care they need; however, a zealous individual doctor or hospital administrator interpreted Catholic doctrine in such a way that a pregnant woman’s medical care was somehow irrelevant and superseded by heart tones of a 17 weeks fetus that could never be viable.

3) Irish law allows abortions for women when medically necessary, but the doctors involved were negligent in that they could not diagnose infection when it was so obviously present, did not know the treatment, or were not competent enough to carry out the treatment.

This is the reality of "pro-life" policy. No life for the mother. No life for the fetus. No life for the other children she had or might have had. The only thing living on in such a situation is the self-righteousness of patriarchal rules.

The consequences of breaking rules is no joke; the Catholic hierarchy memorably excommunicated a nun who consented to a life-saving abortion for a young patient in Arizona, garnering outrage on this side of the Atlantic.

Ireland has been in a legal conundrum for years, since the 1992 “X case” around a distraught young woman, the victim of assault. The case established that Ireland’s policy must permit the ending of pregnancies that threatened the life--not the health, the life--of the mother. But nothing has changed. Since then, Irish and European human rights courts have seen many other cases designed to force implementation of this law.

The legal editor of the Irish Independent begged her government to create clear rules for medical professionals:

As a result of the X case, abortion is permissible in Ireland if it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life -- as distinct from the health -- of the mother which can be avoided only by the termination of the pregnancy.

But no government has ever introduced laws to give effect to the ruling and there is no means for any woman to clarify whether she qualifies for a medical termination under X.

Not one.

Though this writer and many others in Ireland have petitioned for clarifying legislation, they are up against entrenched and powerful opponents.

For instance, a group of pro-life doctors recently convened to declare, falsely, that abortion is never medically necessary--even to save the life of the mother. Meanwhile, a new abortion clinic in Belfast is also drawing fire from anti-choicers, because even though it technically belongs to the UK, opposition on the island is so intense that abortion services were for a long time excluded even in the six counties of the North.

As vigils and marches pop up around the country and at embassies abroad, it’s worth considering the political circumstances that make Ireland, in other cases a liberal modern European democracy, such a unique case for abortion politics.

Galway, where Savita Halappanavar lived, with its gay bars and transient population, is the city that welcomed me when I was 19 for a semester abroad. It opens its pub-lined streets to thousands of American kids each year, who come to Ireland to party and connect with their ancestral roots. (I like to quip that I had no roots to discover, being Jewish, but I read a lot of Joyce and Yeats.) The popular joke at the time I was there was three things never to bring up in a pub: The "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, abortion and the proposed smoking ban. The third was the joke--the first two were genuinely contentious.

When I sat down in my Irish women’s studies class that autumn nearly a decade ago I discovered that almost everyone else around me was American. This was mostly because it fit in with our foreign-student schedules, I think. Still, I remember at the time feeling sorry for our professor, a veteran feminist, because she had to talk about Ireland’s abortion policy and other difficult local issues to a group of beer-soaked American girls who took their own hard-won reproductive rights for granted.

I do remember her telling us about the “thousands of silent journeys” that Irish women make each year to the UK for abortions. She called the more liberal English laws and easy transit options “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”--a way of evading a tough national debate about abortion. You see in Ireland, the abortion debate pits the country’s modern reality (condom dispensers in nightclubs, immigration) with its long, mostly ethnically homogenous Catholic history, and -- this is particularly important -- its use of Catholicism as a site of resistance to violent and oppressive imperialism from Britain.

The last time I was in Dublin, a brief overnight stop in 2008,the Irish people were preparing for a referendum on a contentious EU resolution. We saw posters everywhere opposing Ireland’s involvement in the treaty that warned of more foreign workers arriving and of “abortion on demand” being imported from abroad.

Even as the church has been pilloried for sex abuse and corruption scandals, the abortion issue is a cultural one, too, that goes beyond church hierarchy. When people say that Ireland is “backward” because of its restrictive abortion laws, for instance, it feeds into age-old racialized stereotypes about Irish people that were used to justify colonization.

Today on Twitter, some Irish feminists noted that the sudden interest of British women in Irish abortion laws made them uncomfortable exactly because of that imperialist legacy.

And yet despite these factors, opinion on the island is changing rapidly. In the Time magazine article about the first abortion clinic in Belfast (which was met by hundreds of protesters), a startling statistic popped out:

Now the time for kicking the issue into the long grass may have passed. A poll carried out last year in the republic showed 54% of the country’s electorate backing the full legalization of abortion, up from 37% four years earlier. And, for the first time, women in the south contemplating unwanted pregnancies need only look north to see another option.

Indeed, with these numbers and with Halappanavar's tragic death--the account which appears to include Catholic hegemony and possibly xenophobia --the debate is going to happen no matter what. International feminists need to support Irish feminists in their struggles, both legal and social, and listen to their concerns. My guess is the climate on abortion in Ireland may change, and if it is ever legalized in some circumstances, Irish feminists are going to have to contend with an anti-choice movement just as virulent (if not more so) as ours--and backed by thousands of years of patriarchal Catholic tradition.

And if our circumstances are any indicator, they will never stop fighting. After all, we are besieged by legislators who want to turn back the clock and treat American women as Savita Halappanavar was treated. Ohio’s zombie “Heartbeat bill,” which has been introduced yet again, is a prime example.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.

 
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