Now that the initial media reaction to Savita Halappanavar’s death has passed, it is time to move beyond the immediate issue of women’s liberty in order to reflect on the broader theme of the dynamics of the State and the individual.
The Irish probe team is examining the exact degree to which the delay in aborting the dying foetus in Halappanavar’s body was responsible for her death. But the doctor’s steadfast refusal to abort the miscarried pregnancy was motivated by his obedience to a law that penalises any abortion carried out while a foetal heartbeat is palpable.
Prima facie, then, Halappanavar died largely because of an Irish law that apparently puts Christian-Catholic religious imperatives above the medical ethos of easing pain and saving lives.
Yet, Christian conservatives, in Ireland and elsewhere, oppose abortion in the name of being ‘pro-life’. The ‘life’ of a foetus in a woman’s womb is sacred to them while the woman’s life, apparently, is not.
The irony inherent in glorifying and protecting unborn ‘life’ even at the cost of the life of a woman — as it often turns out — is cruelly misogynistic: it underscores the anthropologically proven fact that most religions, including Christianity, are fundamentally patriarchal.
This brings us to the question of the traffic of rights and duties between the State and the individual. The modern democratic State ensures the individual’s rights to life and liberty and demands the citizen’s adherence to its laws in return.
When the State’s laws run counter to its function of ensuring the individual’s rights the reciprocity of the contract between the State and the individual is breached. It is in such situations that the ‘welfare State’ behaves like the master State, protection turns to persecution and ‘democracy’ starts to look like fascism.
Such a situation is most likely to occur with respect to marginalised and/or dominated groups in a polity like, say, racial minorities, homosexuals, and, of course, women. When the State adopts a religion, whether officially or not, it has a greater propensity to frame and uphold laws inimical to women, since all major religions are demonstrably patriarchal.
The dynamics of power between the Church and civil life in medieval Europe led to a model of non-secular statehood that kept alive religious control of private and public life. And this legacy of Christianity as a State religion persists in many European countries due to the compulsions of electoral politics.
Hence the Irish law that contributed to Halappanavar’s death. Even in putatively ‘secular’ democracies in the ‘developed’ West religious fundamentalism lingers powerfully. The world’s oldest democracy and the strongest bastion of the individual’s liberty, the US itself, is a case in point.
Thus, many schools throughout the US still teach the doctrine of ‘Creation’ instead of the scientific theory of evolution. And recently this ultra developed democratic nation went to the presidential polls with the ‘pro-life’/pro-choice’ debate as a major issue. Indeed, Christian fundamentalism has been a threat to women’s empowerment in the West since at least the 1980s.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991), which documents the ferocity of fundamentalist reaction to the gains of feminism in the US and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood’s fictional portrayal of patriarchal dictatorship, demonstrate this fact.
Even as women across modern democracies make great advances in all spheres of public life, religious fundamentalism re-emerges as part of the patriarchal ‘backlash’ to their progress. We, Indian women, may take pride and comfort in the fact that ours is a 'secular' democracy that cannot enshrine religious bigotry as law.
We have the Constitution as our ultimate refuge against fundamentalist forces like ‘khap panchayats’ and quasi-religious political outfits. We, even more than our men, have a great stake in the survival of the Constitution. In the interest of our basic rights as individuals, we must make our constitutional democracy defeat disruptive forces, like anarchic ‘civil’ movements, and survive.
Suparna Banerjee is the author of the forthcoming book, Science, Gender & History: Mary Shelley & Margaret Atwood. The views expressed by the author are personal