I had a blog post all ready to go for today’s offering – one about unrequited love, teenage crushes, and all that juicy and embarrassing stuff that people love reading (when it’s not written about them). It’s a topic of interest for me because of the kind of stories I like to write. It has great relevance. It would have been a fun post.

But today isn’t the day for that post, because of something that happened yesterday.

Yesterday morning, not long after I’d written my last post, a news story broke in Ireland about the tragic death of a woman named Savita Halappanavar. This lady, who was 31 years old and had been 17 weeks pregnant, died in hospital a week after she’d first presented there with back pain (which subsequently turned out to be a miscarriage). She died of septicaemia, and had suffered tremendously before her death, both emotionally and physically.

I am an Irish Catholic, observant of my faith and deeply attached to it. I have no problem in stating as much, and anyone who knows me in real life will attest to it. I have been pro-life all my life, and I think that, even if I were not a religious person, I would still be pro-life. Yesterday, however, reading about Savita Halappanavar and what she had to go through, the foundations of my belief system began to crack.

If this woman – this bright, intelligent, deeply loved woman – had been allowed to have a medical abortion, i.e. a termination of her miscarrying foetus, it may have saved her life. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say for sure. But what I can say for sure is that this woman was denied that procedure. She remained miscarrying for days, her body open to all sorts of infection, she and her husband forced to go through mental and physical agony.

In Ireland, in these sorts of situations, a termination is supposed to be permitted. Abortion in general is illegal, but if there is a clear and present risk to a mother’s life, it is just supposed to happen – no questions asked, save the mother first. Even as a pro-life person, I can see that’s the only logical answer. Ms Halappanavar’s baby would not have been able to survive – lost without hope, there was no way its life could have been saved. But because there is no proper, legislated, cast-iron, definitive ruling in this country to say to doctors ‘This is the point at which you may terminate’, two lives have been lost, instead of one. How does a medical professional decide when a mother’s life is at risk? How does it become clear that a woman might die unless medical intervention is introduced? How do we know this won’t happen again?

Ireland is supposed to be one of the safest countries in the world in which to be pregnant and give birth. Our maternal mortality rate is low, and the statistics are often trumpeted by the pro-life campaigners here, who connect the safety in pregnancy with Ireland’s status as a country where abortion is illegal. I’ve actually never really been able to connect the two points of view myself, but I don’t think I ever really gave it a huge amount of thought before. What I now know, having watched the events of yesterday unfold, is that one of the central planks in the pro-life movement has been removed, and that is their certainty that if a woman in medical distress needed a termination in order to save her life, it would be done. We’ve seen it’s not as easy as that.

I can’t find any viewpoint on this situation in which I’m not ashamed of my country. I can’t find a way to excuse the way Ms Halappanavar was treated. I can’t get past the fact that a medical procedure which I always assumed would just take place in a situation like this did not take place, and no proper explanation was given to Ms Halappanavar or her husband. I can’t understand why doctors do not know how to navigate the grey area in the law, and cannot (or, at least, could not in this case) determine when the danger to a mother’s life outweighs any need to try to save a foetus who, at 17 weeks’ gestation, more than likely could not survive anyway. This situation could have happened to me – it could have happened to any of my friends, my cousins, my ‘sisters-in-law’. I have lost faith in my own country, and one of my own rock-solid convictions has started to crack. It’s a frightening thing.

There are renewed calls today for abortion legislation to be introduced in Ireland. We’ve buried our heads in the sand for twenty years, longer even, on making a law around these issues which is clear, unambiguous and fair. I (personally) do not wish for abortion without restriction to be introduced into Ireland. But I do wish, very deeply, for our Government to finally face facts on this issue, and put a law in place which protects women and expectant mothers. I want them to get rid of the grey area, which leaves doctors marooned in a sea of insecurity, helpless and unable to act for fear of being sued or arrested, and put into law exactly what is to be done in a situation like Ms Halappanavar’s. It is not the eighteenth century; women’s health issues shouldn’t cause our Government to blush and hide their faces, glossing over the uncomfortable details. Lives are at stake. This issue is too important, and it can’t be ignored any more.

I am pro-life, and proud to be. But I’m now realising my viewpoint needs to encompass all life; I am pro-woman, pro-expectant mother, pro-human being. I cannot stay silent when the heartbeat of a non-viable foetus, slowly dying, is privileged over the heartbeat of a healthy young woman, also slowly dying. That just doesn’t make sense. In the 21st century, in a developed country which prides itself on its maternal safety record, women shouldn’t die like this.

I spent a lot of yesterday clouded in sorrow, grieving for a woman I never knew, sorry that she had lost her vibrant, precious life in my country. It cannot be allowed to happen again.

10 thoughts on “Sorrow

  1. aanderand

    hello! I think wordpress has messing up because I have not been getting notices that you replied to my comments. I had to go digging for them this morning. I glad you found my rant about our political system useful. On the stories and your husbands comment, I have to laugh because I would write something and show it to my family, my brothers and sister especially, and they would say “Wow, were did you find this.”. They would just shake their head when I told them, “Out of my mind.”
    When I heard about Savita from your post yesterday and dug into the story, I could just not believe it. What happen to the common sense on the part of the doctors? And, the fact they could have acted legally to save the woman’s life makes the whole episode a crime. But, from what I could gather from readings yesterday, the doctors and the hospital were acting under Catholic law and none other.
    I am spiritual not religious. My family was never religious but when I was in high school I began going to a Presbyterian Church on my own, mostly for friendship but my natural curiosity lead me to study many religions. Kind of decided that I would either become Catholic or Mormon, I tried being Mormon and found it to be a lot of hypocritical non-sense, so that kind of put me off on established religion. However, I always thought that when the time comes and I am able, I would ask for a priest to perform last rites. I am not sure why I am telling you this except for the fact when things like the death of Savita happen associated with the Catholic faith, it becomes a test of my faith. I admire that you are firm in your faith and are having the same feelings. I would hope that things change so Savita did not die in vain.

    1. Mrs. F

      But the Minister of Health has said that there is no evidence of Catholic interference in this case. And in fact an induction to save the life of the mother is not even considered a (direct) abortion. Helping the lady expel the fetus wouldn’t have been against Catholic doctrine OR the law.
      My heart goes out to the husband of Savita who has lost both members of his family but I think it’s wrong to use this case for political motives until all the facts are established.
      That’s my tuppence worth anyway.

      1. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Hi Mrs F – you’re exactly right, and I’ve just re-read my post to make sure I said exactly what I intended to say, in case I’d given the impression that I was blaming Catholicism for what happened to Ms Halappanavar. I didn’t mean to, so I hope that’s not what you took from what I wrote. I just stated my own faith position in order to say ‘I am Catholic, with deeply-held beliefs about the sanctity of life, and this case horrified me’. You are right that if Ms Halappanavar had been helped to expel her foetus, as you put it, that neither Catholic doctrine or the law (such as it is) would have been transgressed.

        But my point is – the law *was* transgressed, because Ms Halappanavar was left to suffer instead of being given the help she needed, and deserved. That’s what we need legislation for – to make it absolutely clear when, and how, any mother in a similar situation in the future can be helped appropriately, with due regard for her life. But I take your point that we shouldn’t comment on these things until all the facts are established, and if I caused any offence I apologise.

        Thank you for your tuppence worth! 🙂 This blog post is only my own opinion, and I didn’t mean to ‘use’ the case for any political motive. I do stand by what I wrote, however.

        *EDIT* I just realised your comment may have been directed not at the blog post, but as a response to the comment above yours. If this is the case, please do ignore my ramblings above!

    2. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hi Rand – thanks for your comment. As Mrs F has said, it’s still not clear what role, if any, Catholicism played in the tragic death of Ms Halappanavar. As she rightly points out, too, an intervention to save the life of a mother in a case where she is miscarrying and her foetus is beyond saving is not considered an abortion, and is completely permitted in Catholic doctrine. It’s supposed to be provided for in Irish law, too, but it isn’t, not properly.

      So, as Mrs F says, Catholicism should not have been used as an excuse not to give Ms Halappanavar the treatment she needed. It was wrong to leave her to suffer, from a religious, legal, moral and humanitarian viewpoint, in my opinion.

  2. Maureen E

    I’m pro-life as well and…it’s hard. It’s difficult to be pro-life in an intelligent way, to constantly be weighing opinions, platforms. To look at what’s being promoted behind the message. Personally, I’m anti-abortion (usually–this case seems fairly clear-cut) but I’m also anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-women, and pro-welfare. So not at all the typical US pro-lifer. I find it hard to articulate my position in a way that doesn’t leave me with no friends in the room (so to speak). I have such a gut-reaction to abortion in general that I can’t imagine my position will ever really change there. But I’m constantly reading and evaluating, assessing where I actually stand. You have my best wishes & deepest sympathies.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Maureen – I feel you and I have fairly similar viewpoints. I’m still pro-life; in this case, I feel that abortion, per se, didn’t come into the question. The fact that a miscarriage was taking place, and the foetus was already beyond saving, makes it clear to me that the focus should then have been on the mother’s life, and on saving her through whatever means were necessary – and through the means that should have been available to her under law.

      But, as several people have said to me, it’s not fair to comment until the reports into the case have been made public, so this will be my final word. My post was written to express my own grief and distress – I certainly don’t want to add to anyone else’s grief through my thoughtlessness.

      But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for expressing your own position on the pro-life issue so sensitively. It’s a position I share.

      1. Maureen E

        Just a quick clarification–by “this case seems clear cut” I meant what you said above about the fact that she was already having a miscarriage. I’m not sure whether this made it through or not.

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