On October 21, 31 year-old dentist Savita Halappanavar went to University Hospital Galway in Ireland. She was 17 weeks pregnant, and was experiencing severe back pain. She and her husband were told that she was miscarrying, and she (and her child) died of septicemia a week later, after having asked for and been denied an abortion.
While this story has received minimal visibility in America—because, you know, we’re much more concerned about what David Petraeus might or might not have done with his willie—it deserves understanding for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, in most cases, extremism seems to be prevailing at the expense of understanding what happened, why, and what happens now in the hopes that Savita’s death will not have been in vain.
I was prompted to write this having watched Cenk Uygur’s report yesterday. Please understand: I have nothing but respect for Cenk’s reporting; I’ve written about this before. In this case, however, I’m disappointed that he’s missing an opportunity to educate his vast audience and potentially participate in the change that will occur. Here’s the (NSFW) report:
Using this story to simply vilify Ireland and the people who live there as backwards, religious-obsessed freaks gets us absolutely nowhere. Is abortion illegal in Ireland? Yes, generally speaking, it is. But that’s not news, nor is it unique. According to a 2011 UN report, it’s not even unusual. Ireland’s abortion laws are not the most restrictive in the world, far from it. Hell, I’m amazed anyone ever has sex in Chile or the Dominican Republic at all.
Ireland’s laws regarding abortion have a complicated history. To me, though—keeping in mind that I’m certainly no lawyer—they’re clear. Abortion is legal when the life of the mother is in danger. The eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution, which was approved by referendum in 1983, recognizes the “right to life of the unborn” and (this is the important bit) the “equal right to life of the mother.” To wit:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
What does this mean? It illustrates an important point about Irish people that Cenk chooses to ignore in favor of ranting about religion when it comes to reporting this topic: The voters of Ireland have been clear in their choice to live in a society where abortion is permitted when the life of the mother is in danger.
Cenk also quoted Savita’s husband saying that he—and his wife—are neither Irish nor Catholic (they’re Indian and I don’t know which if any religion). He seems to imply that this means they should not have been subject to Irish laws. Again, though, this is not a religious issue. In our current human society, we are subject to the laws of whichever country in which we choose to reside. Should we be able to pick and choose which laws apply to us if we happen to live in a country in which we were not born? I don’t think so. Does this mean all the laws in any country don’t need to be changed to make them better? Absolutely not.
I want to be completely clear here: I am horrified at the tragedy of Savita’s death. I believe that if we can avoid extremist rants and understand the problem and potential solutions, her death will not have been in vain. As the investigation into this case continues, I hope to learn whether, for example, in the three days Savita spent in University Hospital Galway during which her husband has said they were asking for her pregnancy to be terminated, any other HSE (the body that oversees healthcare) administrators or physicians were consulted and what they did or didn’t do.
Before you sit back in your chair and bemoan the backwards nature of this island nation, understand that Ireland and her people (and, indeed, politicians) are not sitting back and taking this lightly. We are angry. We are motivated to affect change. Since this story broke, there have been protests, vigils, and marches, and more are planned for the days ahead. The Irish Times has done a fantastic job of compiling news and reporting on this story and the reaction to it here.
So in the end, is this a religious issue? Yes, insofar as religion has affected the evolution of Irish society. But news flash: Religion has been a factor in the evolution of the societal structure and laws of every single country on the planet. We can get all extremist about it—just like the American Tea Partiers do—or we can take a breath and remember that a little intelligent consideration goes a long way. Before you condemn “Ireland” or even “Catholicism” wholesale, please take a look around and understand some facts, with a view to being part of the solution rather than just another voice ranting about the problem.