The killing of Savita Halappanavar

// 14 November 2012

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pro choice is pro life.jpg This is a guest post by Sarah Thomasin. Sarah has a poetry blog and a blog about being a trans ally. She is also on Twitter @wordgeeksarah.

On October the 21st, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to hospital complaining of back pain. She was told that her pregnancy was miscarrying. Her cervix was already dilated and leaking amniotic fluid. Nothing could be done: the foetus would die whether or not it was removed from her womb. She was going to lose her baby.

Grief-stricken, but realistic, Savita made a reasonable and sensible request. She asked that her pregnancy be medically terminated and the foetus removed from her body. This request was refused repeatedly, Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws being cited. The dying foetus could not be removed until no heartbeat was detected. Savita and her husband were assured that the her ordeal would soon be over.

It took three days for the foetus to die.

Three days.

Three days of agony in which Savita’s condition rapidly worsened until she died of septacaemia a few days after her unborn child.

Being forced to carry a dying foetus inside her until its heart stopped beating weakened and poisoned her body. She died in pain, in distress, in the knowledge that her life could have been saved.

Understandably, we are angry.

We are angry with the Catholic church for its stance on women’s reproductive rights.

We are angry with the Irish government for legislating against abortion.

We are angry with the hospital for not saving a life, just so that an already doomed foetus could die slowly.

We are angry with the pro-life campaigners who claim that banning abortion does not endanger women’s lives.

There is so much to be angry about that I feel that we are in danger of missing the wider context.

It’s always the way, though, isn’t it? When we’re angry, it can be hard to analyse things. We just want to rage. And, perhaps, part of us doesn’t want it to get any worse.

But I’m sorry, this story does get worse.

According to Savita’s widower Parveen, his wife’s requests for a termination were met with the response, “This is a Catholic country”. When I read that I went cold. I’ve heard things like that before.

If someone starts telling you what country you’re in, or telling you screamingly obvious facts about that country, it’s time to look at them sideways. If your appearance, name or accent mark you out as foreign, you want to be wary of people who say that.

If those people are making important medical decisions about you, be very, very frightened.

I’ve heard that turn of phrase used in schools to shut down kids from immigrant backgrounds. I’ve heard workers use it to intimidate and undermine colleagues.

People simply do not bring up the country they are in in a context like that unless they are being racist.

The only reason I can see that an educated adult woman of Indian origin would be suddenly, randomly, informed of the dominant religious belief of the country in which she was begging for medical treatment is that her ethnicity and religion were an issue for the medical staff treating her. That her pleas for a termination were taken less seriously because they were perceived as the pleas of an unchurched foreigner who should have more respect for Irish Catholic beliefs. I have to wonder: was Savita’s ethnicity and religion, even subconsciously, a factor in the decision not to remove the foetus? The foetus which had as much chance of surviving out of the womb as in it?

I’m not saying that racism killed Savita Halappanavar.

I don’t think it was medical incompetence, or institutional misogyny, or even Catholic dogma.

It wasn’t one of these things. It was, I believe, all of them: a fatal intersectionality, if you like, of oppression.

Funnily enough, the concept of intersectionality has been getting some bad press lately. It’s been claimed that the concept of united, multiplatform response to oppression is too difficult for the layperson to understand. Personally I find this attitude patronizing, lazy and incorrect.

As long as intersectional oppression is happening, as long as it is killing people, It is vital that we keep making the effort to both learn and teach intersectional responses.

It’s too important not to understand.

[The image reads “Pro-choice is pro-life”, in red and blue text on a yellow background. It was created by Philippa Willitts and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

tristan // Posted 14 November 2012 at 4:55 pm

Thanks for this exceptional piece on this trully horrific tragedy.

Chillingly, just two months prior, a symposium chaired by Eamon O’Dwyer, professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynaecology at NUI Galway, and featuring speakers from University Hospital Galway – where Savita Halappanavar died – issued “The Dublin Declaration on Maternal Healthcare” which stated:

“…abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a woman,” &

“…prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.”

Despite the tragedy, this statement has not been retracted or corrected.

Sharon Mitchell // Posted 18 November 2012 at 7:03 pm

Shame on the authorities and church in Eire for allowing a mother and her unborn child to die of racism and clinical neglect.This is indeed a perfect storm of discrimination and mindless abuse.

redskyie // Posted 21 November 2012 at 3:48 am

Thanks for this article. We need to publicise this case as much as possible. It’s tragic for a young woman to die from a problem pregnancy in a supposedly developed country like Ireland.

However I don’t necessarily agree with the following:

“The only reason I can see that an educated adult woman of Indian origin would be suddenly, randomly, informed of the dominant religious belief of the country in which she was begging for medical treatment is that her ethnicity and religion were an issue for the medical staff treating her. That her pleas for a termination were taken less seriously because they were perceived as the pleas of an unchurched foreigner who should have more respect for Irish Catholic beliefs.”

As a Protestant Irish woman I’ve lived my whole life under laws that were made – literally – by the Catholic Church. The statement “This is a Catholic country” is both true and not true, in the sense that the population of the country has not been 100% Catholic in hundreds of years, but the law has traditionally been made on the basis that the country as a whole is Catholic. I am fairly confident that when hospital staff told Savita “This is a Catholic country” it wasn’t, as you say, random. I believe what they meant was “We’re not allowed to give you a termination while the foetus still has a detectable heartbeat, because the Catholic Church says we can’t,” rather than “Stupid foreigner, don’t you know this is a Catholic country?” You can’t live here and not know how Catholic the country is.

Although we don’t yet know the details of who made what decision regarding Savita’s treatment, we do know that similar has happened to other women here. And one thing that many medical professionals have been pointing out in the wake of this case and even before, is that the law as it stands is not clear enough for them to feel confident that in a case like this they won’t be prosecuted for terminating a foetus with a heartbeat.

It’s not as simple as “abortion is illegal” or even that the government has legislated against abortion. We’ve had referenda over the years to decide the question of abortion, but for various reasons – Catholic dogma being one – they have not resulted in legalised abortion, and without the support of the voters the government can’t legalise abortion.

However, in the wake of the X case some years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the state does not have the right to prevent a woman from travelling abroad even if her intention is known to be the procurement of an abortion; it has also ruled that in a case where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother (but not, crucially, the health of the mother), a termination is legally allowable. The threat to the mother’s life does not even need to be imminent. However, following that ruling, successive governments have dragged their feet, failing to put the ruling into law. Women continue to travel to England in the thousands to obtain abortions, so the state ignores the issue.

Doctors have to weigh this fact against the law which says that a foetus cannot be terminated while it has a heartbeat. They feel unsafe performing a termination if there is a chance that they can’t prove without a doubt that the mother’s life is threatened, because the Supreme Court has said one thing, and the law as it stands says another. If there’s any chance that the mother will survive, they feel they are in a grey area, legally speaking.

As a nation we have a certain talent for seeking out loopholes and finding ways to bend the law. When my mother wanted a hysterectomy some years ago, she was told that elective hysterectomies were prohibited for women of child-bearing age (I understand this is no longer the case). In order to have this procedure, she was told in a whisper, she had to find a Protestant doctor who would consent to lie on her medical records and say that she had uterine cancer, and that doctor had to get another doctor to co-sign to this diagnosis. My mother’s medical records still state that she had cancer. But the doctors involved can feel fairly confident that they will not face legal action or be struck off because of their actions, while the same cannot be said of doctors faced with a patient who asks for a termination.

This is not to say that Savita shouldn’t have been given a termination. I am firmly pro-choice and I am disgusted by the fact that a young woman had to die because our country is so backward. But even though casual racism undeniably occurs here on a daily basis, I don’t believe that it influenced the medical staff’s decisions in Savita’s case. An Irish woman would have – and many have – received the same treatment. She might not have been told “This is a Catholic country”, but given the lack of clarity in the law, she would almost certainly have been told something to the effect of, “I know you’ve heard that a termination is allowed if the mother’s life is threatened, but we can’t give you one because the foetus has a heartbeat and we could lose our medical licenses and be sued and that’s because the law hasn’t been clarified and at the root of this is the influence the Catholic church has had on the people and the government of this country.”

Certainly what happened to Savita and what happens to other women here in similar circumstances is, as you say, the result of several factors – yes, institutional misogyny and Catholic dogma are involved, as is the reluctance of the various political parties to take a stand on the issue of abortion when it could cost them votes, and the fact that a lot of people simply think that as long as women can go to England and have abortions, there’s no need to change the law (incidentally, in recent months the subject has been in the news as women with non-viable pregnancies who were refused terminations campaigned for change, so I hope that more people will start to realise the true implications of our wilfully ignoring the issue) but I don’t for one second think that Savita’s ethnicity or religion influenced the decisions made by the doctors and medical staff treating her.

I think it should be pointed out that quite a large proportion of the medical professionals in this country are not Irish themselves. I don’t know how many of the staff in Savita’s case were of Irish ethnicity and how many were from India, Nigeria, the Phillippines and so on, but I would be willing to bet money that they weren’t all pale-skinned Irish catholics. I attend hospital regularly for a chronic condition and my doctors, nurses, radiographers and so on are a varied mix of ethnicities; numbers-wise the Irish staff I deal with are in the minority. (This isn’t a comment on the relative competence of any of the staff, I have great respect for all of them and the care they give me is superb).

redskyie // Posted 23 November 2012 at 1:28 pm

I meant to add that in re: the comment “This is a Catholic country” there is a very common misconception in this country that “Catholic countries don’t allow abortions.”

Many people don’t realise that abortion is not illegal in countries with largely Catholic populations like Spain and Italy. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that in any debate on abortion we may see on television or hear on the radio, somebody from the anti-abortion side (I refuse to call them “pro-life”) will inevitably, at some point, utter a variation on the phrase “We should not legalise abortion because this is a Catholic country and abortion is against the Catholic church’s teachings.”

So the phrase “This is a Catholic country” is not necessarily used here to discriminate against foreigners or people who are not ethnically Irish.

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