For three days, Savita Halappanavar suffered agonizing pain, asking repeatedly that a 17-week-old dying fetus be removed from her body.
For three days she lay in a hospital bed getting sicker and sicker, until eventually she succumbed to septicemia.
While it sounds like a scene from the Dark Ages, this is what happened to Savita, a 31-year-old Indian immigrant living in Ireland, last month.
Everyone wants to know how could such a thing happen in a modern 21st-century nation. In a society much like Canada’s, with the same values, language, health and social structures.
That’s the question medical, legal and ethical experts will debate. They, the media and general public, will dissect the intricate details of this complex case, and package an answer to suit their own agenda.
Savita was reportedly told by doctors that they could not carry out the termination until the fetal heart had stopped because “this is a Catholic country.” This sound bite has been beamed around the world, and it’s a good one, but it doesn’t ring true.
Because the perception that Ireland is still firmly tied to the robes of Catholicism is a fallacy. The mass abuse of children by pedophile priests cut those attachments, and the decaying church, once all powerful, now holds little sway with the people or politicians.
Really, there’s a very simple reason why Savita died. It’s because she wasn’t listened to. She knew how sick she was, and begged doctors to remove the unviable fetus. They didn’t listen to her clearly expressed wishes, didn’t respect, what in hindsight, was her plea for life.
The real tragedy here is that, actually, doctors could have acted legally to abort the fetus. Within what is admittedly a very limited legal framework, obstetricians in Ireland can and do perform terminations in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.
By way of background: Ireland’s constitution officially bans abortion, but a 1992 Supreme Court ruling (known as the X case) found the procedure could be carried out in situations when the woman’s life is at risk.
So, the doctors could have acted. They chose not to, they didn’t listen, instead carrying on their paternalistic pursuit of what they believed was best, or perhaps so as not to put their own necks on the line. This is not a new narrative, and it’s why Savita’s story should transcend the emotive abortion debate and stand as an acknowledgment of all the women who regularly are not listened to when it comes to decisions about their own bodies.
Every day women are not treated, consulted, or taken seriously. Young girls are forced into marriages, to have babies they don’t want; women die due to a lack of basic health care.
According to the World Health Organization, every year, 99 per cent of the planet’s approximately half a million maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
Pregnancy-related complications are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries; unsafe abortion — provided by unskilled people in unhygienic conditions — contributes substantially to these deaths.
Ironically, on the same day that news of Savita’s death surfaced, the UN published a report declaring that legal and financial barriers to accessing contraception and other family planning measures are an infringement of women’s rights. A very fine idea, but with no legal standing the push and pull over what are, and should be treated as, very personal choices carries on.
In Ireland, the push to legislate for life-saving abortion has been growing slowly but surely. In Canada, there is a pull in the opposite direction; the pro-life campaign is alive and well, and simmering beneath the liberal surface, protesting the current laws, the way pro-choicers protest it in Ireland. But what law has the right to tell a woman what she is feeling, what her body is telling her, what she wants for her life? Her health? Her unborn child?
What’s really becoming clear in this modern age is that women are sick and tired of the power that legislators, lobby groups, religious zealots, and indeed the culture of medical paternalism, exercise over their bodies.
In recent years, polls taken in Ireland have found that public opinion supports legislating for abortion in cases where the mother is at risk. But those in power have consistently refused to legislate. Like Savita’s doctors, the politicians aren’t listening.
So while interest groups have seized on this story to twist it in their favour, it’s really a tale about the politics of health.
Countless charities and NGOs work hard to reform health policies in the developing world. Plan International’s Because I am Girl movement uses the optimistic marketing slogan “It only takes one girl to change the world.”
This week, that tagline took on real meaning in the developed world, where clearly there is work to do too.
Over the past few days, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Ireland. It’s heartening to see, but unless some real change comes from this senseless death, Savita will be just another girl who didn’t change the world.