Galway’s Vigil for Savita

This evening I stood for an hour in Eyre Square Galway thinking of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist who died in hospital here. While investigations are ongoing, it appears that she was refused the termination of an already miscarried pregnancy, a procedure that might have saved her life. There seems little room for doubt that this was an avoidable tragedy caused by our wholly inadequate laws.

This is the hospital I go to when I get sick. Where my mother gets regular check-ups. Where my father was pronounced dead. It is the hospital attached to the University where I study science now, where I once took courses in women’s rights. I’ve always had confidence in it and its staff. But they made decisions here that were not based on medicine, but on a certain doctrinal viewpoint. That is wrong.

If they made an immoral choice though, they made it under the threat of an immoral law. Or we should say an immoral absence of law, thanks to one political leadership after another running scared from its duty to enact legislation clarifying this issue, and despite a Supreme Court judgement that found a blanket ban on abortion unconstitutional twenty years ago.

So what is the legal position on medical abortion in Ireland? Frankly your guess is as good as mine. According to 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.

This seems to suggest that there are circumstances in which a pregnancy can be terminated in order to save a woman’s life, and in practice this can happen. An ectopic pregnancy – the condition where the embryo implants and begins to develop outside the uterus – will be removed without compunction. It would be monstrous to give an embryo which could never survive the same rights as the woman it would inevitably kill.

And yet Savita’s foetus had no hope of survival and the threat to her life, while not certain, was severe. Why was a non-viable pregnancy allowed to cause her unimaginable distress leading almost certainly to her death – were they hoping a miracle would somehow save its life?

No. They did not terminate the pregnancy because they didn’t consider they had the right to. The foetus was a person with an inviolable right to life, so the fact that it was going to die was not morally relevant; you can’t kill people just because they’re going to die soon anyway. Only in circumstances where it was absolutely certain that the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to the woman’s death could they have moved to end it, and outside clear-cut cases like ectopic pregnancy such certainty is of course rare.

So they went instead with the moral – but wholly fictitious – certainty that the foetus was a human being with a right to life that must be respected, and Savita Halappanavar died.

The idea that human life begins at conception is not a scientific fact. Nor is it ancient knowledge – conception was only understood fairly recently. It is a doctrine. We might as easily consider human life to begin with the first breath. (Indeed that used to be the belief.) We might consider that it begins at some point between conception and birth, even that it begins before conception in some spiritual realm. But a foetus is not a baby any more than the separate sperm and ovum is, and to treat it like one is just a doctrinal fantasy. Enforcing that fantasy on real people can only lead to tragedy.

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