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Medieval and barbaric

In beautiful Galway, my home town, Savita Halappanavar died after being denied a potentially life-saving abortion. She presented with back pain, and was found to be miscarrying. A day of agony later, knowing her pregnancy couldn’t survive, she asked for a termination, but was refused. “This is a Catholic country,” she was allegedly told. A week after she was first admitted to hospital, Halappanavar died of septicaemia.

india Updated: Nov 16, 2012 23:32 IST
Emer O’Toole

In beautiful Galway, my home town, Savita Halappanavar died after being denied a potentially life-saving abortion. She presented with back pain, and was found to be miscarrying. A day of agony later, knowing her pregnancy couldn’t survive, she asked for a termination, but was refused. “This is a Catholic country,” she was allegedly told. A week after she was first admitted to hospital, Halappanavar died of septicaemia.

This is a Catholic country. If these were indeed the words used by the doctors, then the hospital did not feel the need to sugarcoat its rationale with references to Halappanavar’s psychological health, or the wellbeing of her foetus. Its ideology was not veiled — as Youth Defence, Precious Life and Ireland’s other powerful anti-abortion lobbyists have learned to do — in the language of care and concern for women. The rationale was not cloaked in academic arguments about the moment when human life begins.

Halappanavar objected that she was neither Irish nor a Catholic: a futile attempt to appeal for choice over what was happening to her body. As a medical professional, she most likely knew that her 17-week-old foetus would not be conscious of its existence ending. But her appeal to value her life over an insentient foetus’s heartbeat was ignored. There is no abortion on the pope’s own island and she had no time to get to England.

I am no longer a Catholic, so I need to look for earthly explanations as to what happened to Halappanavar. The medical technology to prevent this painful, senseless death was at hand. Yet doctors did not use it. Why? One could argue that they had to obey Irish law.

I know what it’s like to try to speak out against anti-choice hegemony in Ireland. I know how hard it is to even form pro-choice opinions at all. Like 95% of people schooled in Ireland, I had a Catholic education and was propagandised against abortion.

More, I had to navigate the biased information offered by the Irish press. RTÉ, our national broadcaster, did not even report on a 2,000-strong pro-choice march in Dublin this year, while it continues to cover anti-abortion movements in the provinces. Teachers and journalists, this is your fault too.
Of course, this is made difficult in a country in which the political system, against the will of the electorate, enforces medieval attitudes to abortion.

In 1992 the supreme court ruled that a suicidal teenage rape victim had the right to an abortion. In the referendum that followed, Irish people voted to uphold this judgement. Yet, 20 years later, no government has been brave enough to legislate. In 2010 the European court of human rights ruled against the Irish State in favour of a woman who had to travel to the UK to terminate a pregnancy while undergoing chemotherapy. Still our political leaders have said that abortion is “not of priority” for the government.

To her family, I want to say: I am ashamed, I am culpable, and I am sorry. For every letter to my politician I didn’t write, for every protest I didn’t join, for keeping quiet about abortion rights in the company of conservative relations and friends, for thinking that Ireland was changing, for not working hard enough to secure that change, for failing to create a society in which your wife, your daughter, your sister was able to access the care that she needed: I am sorry. You must think that we are barbarians.
The Guardian