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ABORTION/ Irreconcilable Positions

Another controversy about abortion and the balance of rights between mothers and their unborn children has recently gripped Irish society. JOHN WATERS reflects on the underlying questions

(Fotolia) (Fotolia)

The story of Savita Halappapavar, a young woman who died in a hospital in the west of Ireland three weeks ago, has this week gone to every corner of the globe. It has gone accompanied by an ideological interpretation of what occurred: that she died in a dark and forbidding place, in a country obsessed with theological niceties and outmoded understandings.

What facts that have so far become available may seem to support this depiction of events. Savita Halappanavar, 17 weeks pregnant, presented with back pain at Galway University Hospital on October 21st and was found to be miscarrying. A week later, she died of septicaemia. Her husband claimed that she asked several times for her pregnancy to be terminated, but that this request was persistently refused. Mr Halallapaver claimed the medical staff said they could do nothing because there was still a foetal heartbeat. He claims they were told that this was the law in Ireland and that ‘this is a Catholic country’.

My immediate instinct on reading the fulminations of those who depict my country in this way, is that what they describe is not the country I know – and nor is the law as they describe it.  Ireland is probably one of the safest countries in the world for a woman to become pregnant and have her baby in. Yes, it  remains – in a sense – a ‘Catholic country’ – but in practice this has not meant doctors standing idly by as women died. Indeed, the idea of the Irish heath services being today operated according to the tenets of the Catholic Church seems somewhat ludicrous to anyone who understands the ideological drifts of Irish life in recent times.

Knowing my country as I do, I wonder about that phrase ‘this is a Catholic country’. I am not suggesting it wasn’t uttered, but I wonder about the context. Was it the expression of a blanket refusal by a consultant, or the ad hoc analysis of someone on the margins of the process? Was it offered as a rationale for inaction or as a reflection of some more complex position? Perhaps, because Savita Halappanavar is already dead, nobody will be able to say for sure where that phrase came from.

We must, it seems, wait three months for the results of official reports, before we will know anything concrete about what happened to Savita Halappapavar. Perhaps someone lacked the courage to make a decision, and then it became too late.  Perhaps it was not understood that her life was in imminent danger. Perhaps excessive emphasis was placed on the existence of a foetal heartbeat, and insufficient attention paid to Savita’s deteriorating condition.In truth, we do not know. All we know is that a woman is dead and that someone in the vicinity uttered the phrase, ‘This is a Catholic country’.