Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Savita's death reveals a cultural problem, not a legal one

A woman died because she was refused an abortion.

I mean, you know this. You've read about the horrific case of Savita Halappanavar. You know that
She spent three days in agonising pain, eventually shaking, vomiting and passing out. She again asked for an abortion and was refused, because the foetus still had a heartbeat.
Then she died.
She died of septicaemia and E Coli. She died after three and a half days of excruciating pain. She died after repeatedly begging for an end to the pregnancy that was poisoning her. Her death would have been avoided if she had been given an abortion when she asked for it – when it was clear she was miscarrying, and that non-intervention would put her at risk. But the foetus, which had no chance of survival, still had a heartbeat. Its right to life quite literally trumped hers. (Jill Filipovic in the Guardian)
 It's a pretty strong message to send to women in Ireland, no? "We would rather you die, and that your foetus dies, than you survive while your foetus dies". This one doomed heartbeat is worth more than everything you are, and everything you will now never have a chance to be.

But as stark as this message seems - as blatant an example of the only logical end-point of institutionalised misogyny as Savita's pointless, painful, preventable death is - that's not why she died.

Her death was due to incompetence. Not medical, but legal incompetence: the downright refusal of Irish legislators to actually define what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother.

Because make no mistake: the abortion that Savita was denied? Would have been entirely legal under existing Irish law.

While I'm fucking thrilled that people worldwide (including thousands in Ireland) are calling for progressive change to Ireland's preposterously outdated and misogynistic abortion laws - and I know that only a case like this could have sparked such outcry - the bizarre thing is that no legal change would actually have been necessary to save Savita's life.

Abortion is perfectly legal in Ireland, as long as it's necessary to save the life of the mother.

The abortion Savita was denied would have saved her life. But no one would provide that vital medical care.

The problem is that, because this clause is so fuzzily defined - no one knows what actually constitutes a threat big enough to 'justify' violating the constitutionally-enshrined Right To Life Of The Unborn - no doctor is willing to risk their career and quite possibly their liberty by making that call.

We've covered this, you know? Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had violated the rights of a woman, "C", who was forced to travel to England to access abortion. This abortion enabled her to receive the life-saving chemotherapy she needed, but which would have damaged her foetus. ("Pro-life.") The Court requires the Irish legislature to put procedures in place for exactly these situations: to enable women and their doctors to establish whether or not their medical situation allows for abortion under existing Irish law.

But they've been dragging their feet for two years. And so Savita died.

The wider picture shows that, of course, legislative change is absolutely essential. For the fifty thousandth time, banning abortion doesn't make women stop having abortions: it just makes them have more dangerous abortions, and, particularly in the case of Ireland, more expensive abortions. The Irish law doesn't stop 4,000 women a year from terminating their pregnancies: it just means they have to pay between £400 and £2,000 to do so. Insisting that abortion is a Moral Issue ironically just turns it into a class issue, where "women with money have options, and women without money have babies".

So yeah, march for change, sign the petition, donate to Abortion Support Network. But what scares me is that it's the culture that needs to change. Abortion needs to stop being Ireland's dirty secret, Ireland's biggest taboo. It needs to be removed from its pedestal as The Worst Thing In The World so that, when faced with a woman dying in unspeakable agony, doctors' eyes are clear enough to see that - that there are worse things.


  1. thank you for putting such an articulate voice to such an upsetting topic. well done.

  2. I get where you're coming from with this, but I have to disagree. It is a legal problem as well as a cultural one. The equal right to life of the pregnant person is something provided for by a (twenty year old) Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution, yes. But because of the lack of legislation- the lack of actual laws- doctors still risk prosecution if they perform a termination.

    There's a lot that's in the Constitution that isn't legislated for, and is therefore generally ignored. Like, say, the clause stating that women have a special place within the home (not kidding!). The Constitution is just the framework around which we legislate- it's not the laws themselves. It just tells us what legislation we can and can't have.

    I definitely agree that Ireland has a major cultural problem around abortion- although the depth of protest in the past week indicates, to me, that public opinion is far more reasonable than pundits would have you believe. However, saying that it's a cultural as opposed to legal issue is ignoring the voices of Irish pro-choice activists. We've been campaigning for decades to get the law changed to allow for abortion. We know that it doesn't. As long as doctors can hide behind Irish law- which they can, we have a legal problem here.

  3. I completely agree that legislation is absolutely essential (and your point about constitutional provisions as opposed to legislation is solid - thank you for the correction). I wasn't arguing that there isn't a legal issue, just that technically, in this case, no extra laws would have been necessary to save Savita's life.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. The thing is that they, well, would be. No amendment to the constitution would be necessary, yes. But we are absolutely in need of laws to protect people in situations like Savita's. It's the lack of legislation that caused her death.

      I don't want to harp on on this- and Ireland does have a major cultural problem re abortion- but the lack of legislation for the X Case is something that pro-choice activists here have been arguing will lead to deaths like Savita's for years. I've a post with a shedload of links on it here.

      And y'know, I'm well aware that we're arguing for exactly the same thing here. And I agree with 90% of what you're saying. But many places have cultural issues with abortion. Here, though, it's the legalities- the lack of actual laws in place- that are killing people and forcing them overseas.

    2. Sadly for the possibility of this descending into a BIG ANGRY BLOG WAR, having slept on it I've come to the conclusion that you're actually right. So thank you for that!

      Also - I didn't mean to single Ireland out as some kind of uniquely anti-abortion culture and I@m sorry if it came across that way.

      So thank you for keeping me honest - also, I'm really enjoying your blog!