The husband of Savita Halappanavar has been very clear. His wife was refused a termination of her pregnancy although the foetus would not survive, because the foetal heartbeat was still present, and Savita and he were told, “this is a Catholic country”. He later said that he was convinced she would have lived had this medical intervention taken place. All this appears pretty clear and it adds up to a shattering condemnation of the Irish State and the reactionary forces within Irish society which have denied the rights of women to control their own bodies. What has happened is indefensible not least because the Indian nationality of Savita Halappanavar means it has become an international story.
The Irish State has gone into defence mode and sought to do so through diversion. First it is hoped the issue can be immediately defused and closed down at least temporarily by the call for an enquiry that, it is stated, will take three months. We are expected to believe that the truth will emerge from a government that couldn’t even give clear answers why two health centres are to be built in the Minister of Health’s own constituency.
For those opposed to women’s rights there is nothing wrong and women can rest assured that whatever medical treatment is required for their good will be provided, a claim that flies in the face of all that we know about what has happened.
More dangerously the issue has been diverted by the repeated calls from politicians and commentators that what we need is ‘legal certainty’ as if this is the problem.
This is not the problem.
Thousands of Irish women travel from Ireland to receive abortions because they are all too certain that they cannot control their own bodies within Ireland. It is all too clear that there are no abortion facilities in Ireland and it is all too clear and certain that all the political parties don’t want to change this. They have had twenty years to bring the slightest doubt to such a judgement and they haven’t even tried.
Secondly we are meant to believe that certainty can be delivered from this piece of the constitution: “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.” Given the history of this question it is as likely that legislation would result in the same certain denial of women’s rights as currently exists.
Thirdly, and most importantly, lack of certainty isn’t at all the issue. It is the right of women to control their own bodies, to make their own decisions. We can be certain that had Savita Halappanavar’s wishes been acceded to there would be no question of medical practice being based on theology. We can at the very least say that her chances of being alive today would be higher. Isn’t that what hospitals and health services are supposed to be for?
It is not a question therefore of the State being certain about the restrictions that they impose on women’s rights. It is not an answer that the medical profession be clear when they must let a women die in agony because the law is certain when they can and cannot intervene. It is not enough that women travel abroad because it has been made crystal clear that they cannot vindicate their rights to control their own fertility within the Irish State.
What has happened to Savita Halappanavar has been portrayed as an extreme case and in an obvious way it is. But by its very extremity it has demonstrated that women’s rights to control their bodies will be prevented on anti-abortion grounds, even when it leads to a woman’s death.
The staff at the hospital must be asked to reveal the full decision making process that went on.
What must be made clear to the Government is that the rights of women will not be dismissed and we will not be diverted into accepting a new certainty as to the restrictions placed on them. Legislating for the X case would of course be welcome but it is not enough.
The demonstration outside the Dail last night and actions elsewhere were exactly what was immediately required. This must be followed up by demonstrations and a campaign that demands the full rights of women to control their own fertility including safe and legal abortions with all the necessary facilities to provide them.