Thursday, November 15, 2012

Savita Halappanavar, Irish Abortion Law, and The Critical Mom

I'll never forget a flight from JFK to Dublin in 1985, when smokers could still puff away behind a plastic curtain threaded across the very back row of economy--which is where I was sitting.  Slightly sick to my stomach from stale smoke and stiff legs in my anything-but-roomy seat, I didn't think I could get more uncomfortable until a conversation started between the two other passengers between whom I was sandwiched.  In the window seat, to my left, sat an earnest, bearded fellow who abruptly inquired, "What's the saddest thing that ever happened to you?"  Before I'd decided whether to ignore him or to retort, "Kindly inform us, first,  about your saddest moment," the gentle, fiftyish Irish lady beside me with the West country accent gave him a thorough, poetic, answer that I felt he had not, and would never, earn.  I don't think she recognized that he was casual, impersonal, arrogant.  She just answered his question:
"Well, I think it was when me mother died," she began, and proceeded to tell us, lyrically, and in a way that made me extremely sad, although she seemed to accept the story with equanimity, how her mother had died giving birth to her seventeenth child.  At the time, our Irish storyteller remarked, she herself had been eleven years old.  The nuns laid out the dead mother "very pretty, with the baby in her arms," she continued.  And, she confided, with a quiet acceptance that shocked me, whenever the doctors or the nuns were faced with the choice between saving the mother's life and saving the baby's life, "of course they always saved the baby."
"Because the baby was not yet baptized, and without baptism the poor little thing would go straight to purgatory."
Here's how the Irish constitution begins:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of √Čire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

No pregnant woman in the middle of a miscarriage stands a chance, with this constitution, under Irish law, as long as the baby still has a heartbeat--even when medical tests reveal with 100% certainty that the fetus cannot survive and, far more important, when the mother wants the abortion, whether the fetus will survive or not.  Savita Halappanavar began bleeding, but because the non-viable four-month-old fetus still had a heartbeat, she was sacrificed on the altar of the Irish church, dying of blood poisoning.
Medically trained herself, Halappanavar knew the risks of heavy bleeding during a miscarriage, and wanted to live.  The baby, she knew, could not survive.  She was doomed.  She could have been me--like her, I wanted my firstborn child, as I wanted all my children--but I was a good ten years older than she was on my honeymoon.  Ironically, my husband and I chose Ireland over Greece, thinking that if anything went wrong with the pregnancy I'd get far better care.  I was high-risk by virtue of my age, and wanted the best medical care available.  I was extremely lucky that nothing went wrong on that wonderful trip.  During a second pregnancy that did miscarry, I was fortunately in New York, where a D&C stopped heavy bleeding and probably prevented massive infection.  Without that intervention, who knows whether I'd have been able to conceive my second son or my daughter?  Or whether I'd be alive now?
Among Ireland's greatest charms is its folklore--leprechauns, elves, fairies, changelings.   But the superstitions belong in folklore, not medicine.   Savita Halappanavar was a Hindu, and her husband asked the hospital--who said, "It's a Catholic thing; we can't do abortion," why Catholic theology was being rammed down the throat of a Hindu mother.  It's high time the European court of Human Rights challenged Irish abortion law, and it's high time the Irish re-examined their ideas about Jesus Christ--who would never put any woman through the hell experienced by Savita Halappanavar. 


  1. Scientific ,technological & Medical actions should be based on logic and common sense. Religious rules should not interfere in the decision making and action. It is surprising that an advanced country like Ireland is making such a Gross mistake.

  2. Yes--it's horrifying. And Catholics who imagine that they are "protecting" life are, under current Irish law, destroying it. Thank you for responding.

  3. Yes it is horrific and it is not as simple as being a catholic country. I have been fighting for change for over 20 years now and we need the medical profession to push for legislation to allow them to be able to act as every case depends on where you are and who (and what they believe) are in charge. This will be denied but when you are in the front line this is the reality. Do not give up on us, support us in trying to make this legislation come into being and be workable. At the end of the day, it is a woman's choice,,,,,or should be. Note too that in Turkey, they are trying to restrict caesareans and change the laws there too. No matter where in the world you are, women should have the human right to choose for themselves in all areas of reproduction. This whole debate again has caused such deep hurt and division but it has also made a whole new generation realise that some rights do not exist and that they have to become politicized.

  4. What are the pressures on Irish doctors? When I lived in the States they were always thought to be far better trained than American ones--also Irish nurses. The ones I met were part of the "brain drain" as it was called at the time--not enough jobs in Ireland. The nurses were amazed at lower standards of American medical care, and also at the long arm of the law: before learning anything about medical procedures, they were indoctrinated in the importance of the malpractice suit. In the States, doctors are terrified of malpractice. In Ireland, is it the church? Inform me! And thanks very much for writing back.