Alex Massie

Ireland and Abortion: Cruelty disguised as piety, cowardice misrepresented as principle. - Spectator Blogs

Ireland and Abortion: Cruelty disguised as piety, cowardice misrepresented as principle. - Spectator Blogs
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Oh, Ireland! You knew it would come to this. Today's Irish Times carries the appalling story of the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist in Galway, who died in hospital largely as a consequence of being denied an abortion. As the paper reports, Mrs Halappanavar:

[P]resented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. 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.

[…] Speaking from Belgaum in the Karnataka region of southwest India, Mr Halappanavar said an internal examination was performed when she first presented.

“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.

“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 [a Hindu] 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.”

At lunchtime the foetal heart had stopped and 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."

So there you have it. This Is A Catholic Country. I don't imagine this was said as a boast; more probably it was accompanied by a measure of apologetic shoulder-shrugging. Of course one cannot be sure of this.

What is certain, however, is that something like this was likely to happen at some point. It was just a matter of time; the unavoidable consequence of abortion laws that are cruelty disguised as piety, cowardice misrepresented as principle.

Of course the doctors could not have predicted that their patient would contract septicaemia, far less that she would die from it. However they must have known that the longer it took for her to miscarry the greater the health risks to which she must necessarily be exposed. Better, however, for Mrs Halapannavar to suffer agonies than permit the merciful termination of a doomed pregnancy. This Is A Catholic Country, after all.

Mrs Halapannavar's pitiful position was that, despite being in great pain, she wasn't sufficiently ill to qualify for an abortion. If she had been dying, doctors would have been permitted to privilege her life above that of her unborn child. The Irish constitution permits a "termination" in cases where the mother's life - as distinct from her health - is at risk. Clearly, doctors did not think Mrs Halapannavar's life was in danger. Equally likely: this delay helped kill her.

And all to permit an unviable fetus to perish naturally. Perhaps terminating the pregnancy sooner would have brought its own complications. They could scarcely have been graver than those that followed the failure to assist Mrs Halappanavar.

For decades Ireland has pretended that abortion does not exist. But it does. Thousands of Irish women travel to England each year to have their pregnancies terminated. Irish abortion is a reality; it just doesn't happen on Irish soil.

Dail Eireann has had twenty years to pass legislation clarifying just when and in what circumstances women in Ireland can legally have an abortion. The X Case - which, you will recall, reintroduced internment for (raped) 14 year old girls (as Irish Times cartoonist Martyn Turner famously put it) - was 20 years ago. Yet no legislation followed. Seven governments have had the chance to legislate; seven governments have ducked the issue. But it won't go away, despite everyone's best efforts to bury the issue in some Longford or Roscommon bog.

The Taioseach's response this morning was hardly impressive either: "Anything that we do will not bring back the good woman that has passed away". True but also not far short of: Stuff happens, doesn't it? And that has traditionally been the precursor to learning lessons (but not, heaven forbid, implementing them) and, above all, moving on to something, anything else.

I dare say Enda Kenny would, in ordinary circumstances, welcome a distraction from economic matters. Abortion, of course, is no ordinary issue. It now seems inconvenient that just a few weeks ago the Taoiseach waved the matter away: ‘I think that this issue is not of priority for government now’.

Well it is now. Even, nay especially, because This Is A Catholic Country.