Reflections on the death of Savita Halappanavar

Hello everyone.

So, you may have noticed my country is in the news right now, and not in a good way. Firstly, to anyone who thinks it’s in questionable taste to tackle such a tragic and awful topic in what is usually a comedy blog, I don’t necessarily disagree. But this is the only blog I have and I need to talk about this.

If you don’t know what’s happened over here, this is what we know.

Savita Halappanavar was a 31 year old dentist who moved here to Ireland with her husband Praveen from her native India. Five months ago she was overjoyed to discover that she was pregnant, with a girl who she was going to name Prasa. Last month she presented in a hospital in Galway on October 21 with lower back pain. Savita was told by her doctors that she was miscarrying and that there was nothing that could be done to save her baby. Savita, now dilated and in intense pain, requested several times over two and a half days that the pregnancy be terminated but was told that this could not be done because the foetus still had a heartbeat and that under Irish law to terminate it while it was still alive would be illegal. It has been reported widely that one doctor told Savita (who was neither Irish nor Catholic) that this was because Ireland was a “Catholic country.”


We can’t really know what was going through that doctor’s head as he said that. Best case scenario he was giving Savita the broad, socio-historical reason for this law. Worst case scenario he just fell through a time vortex and he was from nineteen forty fucking three. On October 28 owing to complications from her miscarriage, Savita died.

The “Catholic Country” line has been getting a lot of play and as with anything involving abortion this whole thing has gotten very frenzied, very, very fast so a few things need to be clarified here. The question you are probably asking is “Why is it illegal in Ireland for a doctor to terminate a pregnancy where the mother’s life is at risk and there is no hope of saving the baby?”

The answer is: It isn’t. Sort of. Maybe. We’re not sure.

Ireland broke from the British empire in the early twenties at a time when over ninety percent of its population was devout Catholic. They got the country they wanted, an overwhelmingly Catholic one. Our constitution begins with an invocation of the Holy Trinity and it does specifically prohibit abortion. Now, that does not mean that an Irish woman who wants abortion can’t get one. Britain is a half hour plane journey away and thousands of Irish women take that flight every year. This is the archetypal “Irish solution to an Irish problem”.

However, following a rather horrific incident in 1992 known in Ireland as “Attorney General v. X” or more commonly as “The X Case” an Irish court ruled that exemptions to the ban on abortion could be made in cases where the life of the mother is at risk.

So it’s legal? So why did Savita die? Well, here’s the thing. Courts don’t make laws. The Dáil, the Irish legislature, has not yet gotten around to implementing the court’s ruling into Irish law fully twenty years after  The X Case, and the reason for that is that an Irish politician who ingests cyanide has healthier long term prospects than one who stakes a position on the abortion issue. It is utterly toxic here. And in fairness, it’s not entirely the fault of law makers. The Irish Medical Council has never issued concrete guidelines to its members as to when it is legal to perform a termination to save the life of the mother and when it is not. So the doctors are left in a state of paralysis. We have a court ruling that says it’s legal. We have laws still on the books that say it’s not. In practice it becomes a case of whether the doctor in question is willing to risk it or not.

I bring this up because as a result of that “Catholic Country” remark you may see a lot of “The Catholic Church killed Savita” threads. That’s not what happened. There is no evidence that the Catholic Church or any of its representatives played any part in the doctor’s decision not to grant Savita a termination. The Irish Catholic Church does not have the power to order doctors to perform or withhold medical procedures.



So yeah. It’s legal, except when it’s not, except when it is. Sort of. Maybe.

This week, Ireland’s highwire, gravity-defying, plate balancing act on the abortion issue has come crashing down in the most awful, spectacular and public way imaginable. Savita’s death has kicked off a political and social firestorm here in Ireland the likes of which I honestly cannot remember. The news first broke yesterday and by the evening of the same day there was a protest of over two thousand people outside Leinster House. My guess is that many Irish politicians in power today will not be by the time this thing has finally run its course. There is a palpable sense in the air that something is going to give. I have no doubt that Irish historians will be referring in the future to “Pre-Savita” and “Post-Savita” Ireland.

It may surprise you to learn that I consider myself pro-life. I accept that it is necessary in some circumstances, but in broad strokes the concept of abortion is repellent to me and I cannot get behind it. But, and this may seem a thuddingly obvious thing to say but it still needs to be said: This should not have happened. There was no moral, rational or medical argument to deny her a termination in those circumstances. If you are pro-life and think that what occurred was right and proper, consider that two people are dead instead of one. Prasa could not have been saved. Savita could have been.

Am I in favour of criminalization? No. Doesn’t work. Best case scenario it  moves it somewhere else like it does here in Ireland. Worst case scenario a whole load of women die in back alleys. I am in favour of comprehensive sex education, easy access to contraception and poverty reduction. You know, the stuff conservatives hate but that actually reduces the number of abortions.

In Ireland we have five national sports, gaelic football, hurling, camogie, hand ball and kicking the can down the road. But we’ve finally reached the end of the road. An innocent woman has died a horrible death because we couldn’t bring ourselves to look this issue in the face. Because we could not accept that sometimes the Right Thing is fucking horrible but it’s still right. That cannot happen again.

I did not know Savita Halappanavar. I cannot imagine the grief her husband and parents are going through now. When I try to imagine what it would be like to lose my wife like that my mind just digs its heels in and refuses to go there. It’s like putting your hand in a fire, you just can’t force yourself to do it. I did not know Savita Halappanavar, but I know that she was a unique individual. Of very few people can this be said:

Her death has left an entire nation transformed.

उसकी आत्मा को शाँति मिले       Solas na bhFlaitheas dá anam uasal


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