Joyce McMillan: The right to choose is about respect

Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia three days after she began miscarrying. Picture: PA
Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia three days after she began miscarrying. Picture: PA
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THE death of a woman refused a life-saving abortion demonstrates a disregard for human dignity, writes Joyce McMillan

TWO or three times in my life, among my own circle of friends, I’ve had to listen to the news that what is possibly the happiest event in any life – the birth of a much-wanted child – has turned abruptly and shockingly to tragedy. And on just one of those occasions, I found myself listening in disbelief to the news of a woman’s death in childbirth; a disaster once commonplace in our culture, but now – thanks to the kind of medical advances we too often take for granted – so rare as to seem almost unthinkable.

It’s difficult, therefore, for anyone who has not directly experienced this most terrible of losses to imagine the feelings of the family of Savita Halappanavar, 31 years old, a dentist, happily married and expecting her first child, who died in University College Hospital, Galway on 28 October of a severe blood infection, following a prolonged and agonising miscarriage. The case has led to a firestorm of protest in Ireland, for obvious reasons; under Irish law on the termination of pregnancy, now among the strictest in the world, pregnancies can be ended only if the mother’s life is at direct risk. The doctors in Galway thought that Savita’s life was not in danger, and refused to hasten the inevitable end of her pregnancy because they could still detect a foetal heartbeat. Her own and her husband’s repeated requests that they should end the pregnancy, as quickly as possible, counted for nothing under present Irish law.

It’s therefore not surprising that pro-choice campaigners in Ireland are rallying their forces, following this tragedy, to campaign for a decisive change in the law; given the Galways doctors’ low assessment of the risk, only a change to allow for a substantial element of maternal choice would actually have saved Savita. According to recent polls, opinion in Ireland is shifting rapidly towards a more liberal position on abortion; and one of Ireland’s current governing parties, the Labour Party, takes a strong pro-choice position, in theory at least.

In the Irish context, it is therefore difficult to see how the old and now much-discredited alliance between the Catholic church and conservative politicians will be able to hold the traditional line on abortion for long, against the continuing pressure for change from a generation of Irish women – and many men – who feel that they have seen enough of religious and patriarchal attitudes in politics to last them for generations to come. And in this instance, their campaigning against the dark forces of conservatism in Ireland is given an extra edge by the suggestion that the Halappanavars were subjected, before Savita’s death, to insensitive comments about how her pregnancy could not be ended because “Ireland is a Catholic country”; some of the more sensational elements of the Indian press are now running headlines claiming that Savita was “murdered” by Irish abortion law, ruthlessly imposed on a couple from a different culture.

For us on the other side of the Irish Sea, though, Savita’s death raises more complex questions; for if Ireland is still moving from an age of religious conservatism into more liberal times, attitudes in the UK – and here in Scotland – now seem more ambiguous. For almost a generation now, we have been subjected to an insistent suggestion, from large elements of the popular media, that the radical social changes we achieved in the 1960s and 70s went too far, and have been responsible for the supposedly “broken Britain” in which we now live; a land of fatherless children, and casual use of abortion as a method of contraception. It’s not only that we now take many of our hard-won rights for granted; it’s also that we toy with the reactionary idea that we would be better off without those rights. And some campaigners for Scottish independence fondly imagine that an independent Scotland might even turn the clock back, on this kind of social “decadence”.

In truth, though, our persisting attraction to these bitter and illiberal ideas tells us more about the punitive mood of much British public debate than it does about the substance of these vital social issues. To believe that women should not – within agreed limits – have a right to choose on abortion, is to imagine a world full of women too thoughtless, too careless, too morally confused and too unloving, to be allowed to make a choice on the most important decision of their lives. It is to objectify pregnant women as a group in need of guidance and control; and at worst, to deny much-needed help and compassion to a living woman sitting in front of you, in favour of a theoretical commitment to the rights of a tiny human embryo.

At its deepest level, in other words, the debate on the right to choose is a debate about respect; about our capacity to treat other human beings as equals, and to assume that they will bring both intelligence and compassion to bear on vital decisions about their own lives.

Savita Halappanavar’s death certainly comes as a terrible reminder that the traditional provisions of Irish law withhold that respect from all women, in matters of childbearing.

We would be wise to recognise, though, that if the “othering” of women, as a group to be coerced and controlled by a patriarchal church and state, is still written in the law of Ireland – to the shame and anger of many in that country – there are also many forms of “othering” at work in our own society and public debate, less obvious, less archaic, more insidious, and more alive.

They bear hard on vulnerable people for many reasons, from gender, race, politics and sexuality to sheer economic disadvantage. And in the end, they all have just one aim: to diminish the value of other human beings, and to justify the withholding from them of the dignity, autonomy and rights that we would wish for ourselves; rights which – if honoured in full – would almost certainly have saved the life of Savita Halappanavar, whose lovely smile is now frozen for ever under the tragic headlines that describe her fate, and call us back to the unending struggle for human dignity, for the rights of women, and for a world of mutual respect.