Dani Garavelli: The crying shame of a Catholic country

Savita Halappanavar. Picture: Reuters
Savita Halappanavar. Picture: Reuters
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JUST a fortnight ago, a couple who killed their 15-year-old daughter by throwing acid over her because she looked at a boy, spoke out about their crime.

Inter­viewed in adjoining police cells in Pakistan-­administered Kashmir, they said they feared her stolen glances would ­“dishonour” the family. In a voice, chilling by virtue of its sheer detachment, her mother told how the girl had promised not to look again. “But by then I had ­already thrown the acid,” she said. “It was her destiny to die this way.”

The couple’s crime, carried out in a remote village – the kind we westerners, with our sense of moral superiority, might term “backward” – was disgusting, medieval, the product of a combination of ignorance and fundamentalism that has no place in the 21st century.

Last week, another atrocity was carried out by religious zealots much closer to home. Pregnant dentist Savita Halappanavar died when doctors in the Republic of Ireland refused to abort the baby she was miscarrying because they could still hear its heartbeat. “This is a Catholic country,” the medics told Savita and her husband Praveen, who were neither Irish nor Catholic, but who paid the ultimate price for having settled in a place so anachronistic that the life of a 17-week-old foetus was deemed to be of greater value than the life of a 31-year-old woman.

In this Catholic country, it seems, Halappanavar was not a priority; seven days after she was admitted to hospital and four days after her by then dead baby was finally removed from her womb, she succumbed to septicaemia, caused, most likely, by bacteria ascending from her vagina to her uterus after her membranes broke early. Halappanavar’s parents, who live thousands of miles away in India, are justifiably outraged at the “barbarity” of the religious code which produced such a travesty of healthcare.

Perhaps the doctors were abiding by what they believed was the letter of the law in Ireland, which prohibits abortion in all but the most obviously life-threatening circumstances. Perhaps, as Catholics, they were unwilling to have the termination on their consciences (though you’d have thought the death of Halappanavar would have been a weightier burden to bear). Or perhaps they thought it was “her destiny” (aka God’s will) for her to die. Whatever, the apparent disregard for her welfare makes a mockery of the term Pro-Life.

Of course, most women in Ireland – those who are well enough to travel – have another option; they can make their way, as thousands each year do, to Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, to have their pregnancy terminated. But Halappanavar, desperately ill in a hospital bed, was ­effectively a hostage; a hostage to other people’s ­ethical codes and lack of empathy.

I say this as someone who is not vehemently pro-choice; when it comes to abortion, I’m somewhere in the middle, although, God knows, in an emotive, ­polarised debate that’s the loneliest place to be. While not even a gun pointed at my head would persuade me to wave a placard outside an abortion clinic, or campaign for a change in the UK law, which has over the decades rescued hundreds of thousands of women from the clutches of back-street butchers, I feel uneasy about the creeping acceptance of abortion on demand as an inalienable human right. I worry about statistics which show a rising number of women having multiple abortions and about a time limit which is apparently non-negotiable even though advances in medical science mean the number of weeks at which a foetus becomes viable is dropping all the time.

Yet what happened to Halappanavar is a reminder that no wider moral qualms should ever stand in the way of protecting those women whose physical or mental wellbeing is threatened by pregnancy. And the image of a doctor officiously tracking the heartbeat of a miscarrying foetus, while its mother vomits and collapses in a restroom, shames a nation which has steadfastly refused to bring itself into line with the rest of the world.

Since 1992, when the Irish Supreme Court ruled that a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim, who had been forbidden to leave the country in order to have a termination, was indeed entitled to the procedure, Ireland has been caught in a kind of legal limbo. Although the ruling set a precedent in favour of allowing abortion when the mother’s life was at risk, successive governments failed to clarify this in law, each fearing that any such move would pave the way for those who wish to see full ­legalisation. This despite the fact that a 2012 poll showed 80 per cent of the electorate was in favour of the move.

Even after the Court of Human Rights urged Ireland to end the confusion, the government dragged its heels, setting up a commission which has taken nigh on two years to complete.

With thousands of protesters marching on the Dail last week and Amnesty calling for action, perhaps Halappanavar’s death will prove the catalyst for change, though – given Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s insistence that he won’t be rushed “by pressures from any side” – I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Kenny doesn’t seem to see that if the government doesn’t act quickly, it will send a signal to the world that the religion-infused cruelty that gave birth to the Magdalene laundries still flourishes today. Ireland will stand lost in time and isolated, bearing a plaque which reads: This is a Catholic country; we do things differently here.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1