Thousands of people marched to the offices of Ireland's prime minister on November 17 to support a woman's right to choose. The protest was sparked by the death of Savita Halappanavar in hospital, after staff refused to terminate her pregnancy even though her life was in danger. The article below first appeared on the Irish site Sráid Marx.
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Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, arrived with back pain at University Hospital Galway on October 21st but was found to be miscarrying. Doctors told her the baby wouldn’t survive but it would all be over in a few hours. Her agony lasted until 28th.
Her husband says she asked several times that the pregnancy be terminated but that this was refused because the foetal heartbeat was still present. Her husband reported that the doctor “told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.
He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.
This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”. She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped. When the dead foetus was removed Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.
“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.
“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics. “The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”
When the foetal heart had stopped Ms Halappanavar was brought to theatre to have the womb contents removed. “When she came out she was talking okay but she was very sick. That’s the last time I spoke to her.” At 11 pm Ms Halappanavar’s husband got a call from the hospital. “They said they were shifting her to intensive care. Her heart and pulse were low, her temperature was high. She was sedated and critical but stable. She stayed stable on Friday but by 7pm on Saturday they said her heart, kidneys and liver weren’t functioning. She was critically ill. That night, we lost her.”
On the face of it we have a desperate tragedy that could possibly have been avoided. That it has not is because of the continuing power of a state colluding with an institution, the Catholic Church, which, despite being increasingly discredited, continues to wield enormous power. This includes its patronage of hospitals and influence on medical practices.
The Church has been found guilty of systematic and widespread child abuse in report after report. It has defended itself first by cover up and denial, relying on the state, including the Garda to protect it; and finally by expressions of sorrow and regret while making the minimal of changes. The Church has still been allowed to continue to ‘self-regulate’ while it being obvious that the resources provided to protect children are woefully inadequate. The Church has shown not the slightest sign of willingness to pay for its crimes.
Above all it has been the state which has been the last line of defence for the institutional power of the Church and this is so despite the much publicised criticism by politicians, including Enda Kenny in the Dail, and the weak measures to reduce Church patronage of schools. Such criticism is designed to save the Church from itself and reduced patronage is acceptable to it, if it is limited, because the Church has already stated it is currently over-extended.
For years the Irish State has been under an obligation to legislate for abortion where the life of the mother is threatened and all the political parties have avoided discharging this obligation. How bitterly ironic then that the Expert Group set up to report on this issue, in reality a device to kick the question further down an infinite road, reported its findings to the Government last night. We can be absolutely certain that this procrastination will continue now that the report has been completed.
The expressions of sorrow from the politicians in the Dail this afternoon are nauseating and hypocritical. If the facts are as they are now understood then their defence of Catholic Church teaching has led to a result that has been both foreseeable and foreseen. Two internal inquiries into what has happened are to take place, one by the hospital itself and one by the Health Services Executive. Those who work in the hospital should, through their trade unions if that is easiest, report what has happened or at the very least prevent any cover up. Much better would be a workers enquiry made up of health service staff and users of the services. Neither of the internal inquiries can be trusted to reveal the truth of this case.
Most fundamentally this is because, while this is a personal tragedy, it is the result of a political system that still defends the reactionary social teaching of an increasingly disgraced institution. It does so because of the independent power of that institution, the historical ties that bind and the need for the Irish State to hold to whatever forms of legitimacy it can, no matter how tattered. The Church and its teachings remain a powerful reactionary force in Irish society notwithstanding the scandals. This is an earthly power with deep roots.
Some on the Left appear to believe that confronting the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is a battle won when in fact it has been battles fought by women and the self-inflicted wounds of the abuse scandals that have weakened its authority. It is now well past the time that the Left demanded the rights of women to control their own bodies, with the right to choose whether they have an abortion or not. This requires the complete separation of the Church from the State and the expulsion of the Church from education and health services. Safe and legal abortion services must be provided by the health services free at the point of delivery.
We should expect to see the deputies of the United Left Alliance excoriate the political leaders who have allowed this to happen. It is one of the few truly useful functions a TD in the Dail can perform. This is not a tragedy above or beyond politics but is something a rotten political system and its defenders made inevitable.