With protests and vigils held all around Ireland, and another planned for Wednesday 28th in front of Leinster House during the Dáil debate on the issue, the whole world has been swept up by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar with calls for legislation and even calls for the separation of church and state.
I am both an atheist, and very pro-choice, but the way this event has been used is a huge cause for concern. Savita has stopped being a person and become a political symbol. Pro-life groups have condemned pro-choice campaigners for exploiting Savita’s death and manipulating the public. While it feels ludicrous that the people behind the repulsive “Don’t Tear Her Life Apart” ads that blighted the country this summer could accuse anyone of being manipulative, the details of Savita’s case have increasingly little to do with the political movements that she is being made the face of.
The unfortunate fact about this case is that despite the surge of people calling for legislation on the ‘X Case’ on the back of Savita’s death, there’s not much evidence to believe this would have had any impact on this case. The X Case took place in 1992, when a 14-year-old girl was prevented from travelling to the UK for an abortion after being raped by her next-door neighbour. The injunction against her travel was put in place after her family consulted the Gardai on whether DNA from the aborted foetus could be used to help in prosecuting their neighbour for rape, as he was denying the charge. One of the key elements of the case was that the girl was threatening suicide should she be forced to carry her rapists baby to term, resulting in the ruling that established the right of Irish women to an abortion if the woman’s life was at risk because of pregnancy, including the risk of suicide.
One of the key things about the X case is the wording. It was decided that abortion was permissible when the mother’s life was in danger. Her life, not her health. Even if the legislation for this case was firmly in place, it seems likely that Savita would have been denied the procedure, as it was not until after the foetal heartbeat had stopped that it became clear she was in life-threatening danger. Many women have had similar situations where they got septicaemia and recovered, giving any doctor so inclined ample reason to deny an abortion even if there was legislation in place following the X Case. She should have been given a termination when she requested one, she should have been given antibiotics to fight infection which she seemingly wasn’t until far too late, but none of these things fall under the X Case. Although we must wait for the result of the HSE investigation, as more details emerge it seems this tragedy may be due to malpractice, not a failure in our law.
It is still curious to see the degree to which this case has galvanised a nation. The widespread anger and grief, protests and vigils show huge support for the cause of legalising abortion in Ireland, that has never been so evident before. People are understandably horrified that a young woman died in pain, but it was a very unusual event. The fact is, very few people die for want of abortion in the western world. To base an entire campaign on a freak event is incredibly foolish, particularly when there is a wealth of evidence as to the societal benefits they could be using to back it up.
The problem with these facts as far as campaigns go, is that they are complicated and often uncomfortable. Reasons to support abortion range from allowing women to have complete control of their reproduction, to the case outlined in the pop economics book Freakonomics, which argues that the legalisation of abortion in America led to a huge fall in crime due the unwanted babies of poor, young women not being born to grow up and turn to crime. There are good, sound logical reasons to support abortion, but they are hard to fit on a placard.
In campaigns for any cause, organisers often turn to either martyrs or scapegoats. It simplifies your aims and makes it easier to gain followers. Turn your cause into a black and white issue, and it’ll be easy to shout about it at the Dáil. But this is not a good way to run a campaign in the long term, and the issue of abortion in Ireland is not going to change overnight. It will take years of constant lobbying to change such a deep-rooted facet of Irish religious belief, and the Savita campaign has done everything to ensure it’s a flash in the pan. Creating a martyr is not the right way to go about this. Both sides of the abortion campaign are relying on shameless manipulation, trying to get at the emotions of the public, trying to get a knee-jerk outrage at whatever is happening. Neither side are truly arguing their case, neither are making the public aware of the facts.
Action needs to be taken on the X Case and reproductive rights. That has been clear for a long time; not only is the case 20 years old, but just two years ago the European Court of Human Rights demanded that the issue be resolved after the ABC Cases. But whatever campaigns there are need to focus on facts, focus on the real reasons why there needs to be change. Otherwise, when the public hysteria of the Savita tragedy wears off, the pro-choice lobby will find themselves exactly where they started. Such a one-dimensional campaign cannot last, and as it stands, if the government brazen it out for another month, most people will forget their sudden anger and grief. Real change needs a real campaign, and I hope the pro-choice lobby has a more solid plan in place than martyrdom.