Not a Happy Diwali for Family of Dead Hindu Woman Denied Abortion in ‘Catholic’ Ireland
How many times? How many women? How many lives?
When people ask me what are the most emotionally gruelling stories I’ve covered, many are surprised when I reply, “Women’s rights – or the lack thereof.”
I’ve covered more than my fair share of gut-wrenching women’s rights stories. I don’t seek them out, they find me – and destroy me. Honor killings, child brides bartered for justice in Afghanistan; female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa; rape in Algeria – it’s not a happy world I cover.
But I don’t expect to experience that familiar sickening feeling when it comes to the European Union. Not the 27-member bloc that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize – surely.
And yet, Ireland does it again and again. Whether it’s the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, it doesn’t matter, I’ve come to discover.
Here’s the latest source of my distress: Savita Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant when she died in an Irish hospital because doctors refused to perform an abortion, according to her family.
Savita, a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist, was admitted to the University Hospital Galway last month with severe back pain. She had repeatedly requested a pregnancy termination, according to her husband, Praveen Halappanavar.
But her requests were denied and a week later, she died of septicaemia.
Not Tonight – or Tomorrow – Darling, We’re Catholic
Now for one of the more galling details in a deplorable tale: At one point, Savita was told she couldn’t have an abortion because - get this, “This is a Catholic country,” she was informed.
Oh yes it is. In case anybody had any doubts about it – especially the legions of folks across the world who go all warm and fuzzy about “ye olde Oireland” or “good ol’ Eire" – this is a very Catholic country.
So Catholic that nobody bothered to listen to a 31-year-old member of the medical profession – even when she noted, “I am neither Irish nor Catholic”.
The Halappanavars are Hindu, hailing from Karnataka in southern India. As I write this, Hindus across the world are celebrating Diwali – the festival of lights, the most joyous feast on the Hindu calendar.
There’s a video available on YouTube featuring the young couple performing at Nov. 2010 Diwali ceremony hosted by an Indian community group in the western Irish city of Galway. Savita takes a while to stage her appearance in the video, but once she does, it’s heartbreaking to see the lively young woman in shimmering sky-blue Diwali outfit breaking out the Bollywood moves with her husband.
This year, there are no light-hearted festivities in the Halappanavar household, you can be sure.
Ireland’s God-fearing Men of Science
If they happened to be back in their native, un-Catholic India, the couple could have sought and got a legal abortion without any problems.
But they were immigrants in Ireland, Catholic Ireland, which has one of the world's strictest anti-abortion laws with a ban on abortion written into the national constitution. Terminations are only permitted if there is a substantial risk to the woman's life. Under Irish law, destroying or aiding the destruction of the unborn carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Did you see that? Terminations are permitted if there’s a substantial risk to the woman’s life. That would apply to Savita Halappanavar’s case.
But here’s the twist. Not only does Ireland have one of the world’s most repressive abortion laws, but even when it’s permitted, it’s extremely difficult to get an abortion in this most pure Catholic nation.
Doctors are either not willing to perform an abortion because the application of the law is arbitrary with the severe penalties, or because the doctors themselves are such god-fearing men of science, they don’t “do” abortions.
Currently, there are two investigations going on into this case. I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with.
Covering the ‘Miss D’ case
In May 2007, I spent a couple of mornings in a Dublin courthouse covering the case of a 17-year-old girl – identified only as Miss D. – who went to court after her legal guardian – the state health service - issued an order stopping her from going to Britain to abort her fatally brain-damaged foetus.
For those of you not familiar with Ireland, note some of the details in this story. Miss D, a 17-year-old pregnant teen, was under state care because her mother - who turned up at the trial – didn’t bring her up.
Here’s my point: If you want to see poor mothering – inordinately young mothers hitting and screaming at their children – you don’t have to go to Kandahar. Dublin is a good stop. Out here, grandmothers look like mothers and mothers look like sisters - and that’s not because Irish women age well. It’s because they tend to get knocked up early after an education in state schools where the contraception lesson isn’t hammered home. Once they get pregnant, their upbringing has guilt-tripped against a sinful abortion.
The ones who do seek abortions – and there have been tens of thousands of them over the decades – have to travel to the UK for the procedure. It’s such a tradition, the Irish have a number of euphemisms for it. In the old days, it was called “taking the boat”. These days, most Irish women fly to the UK, so the euphemism has been updated to “making the journey”.
The laws of course have not been updated.
As the Miss D case was proceeding in a Dublin court, the streets of the Irish capital were paved with election posters. Ireland was going to the polls in a general election toward the end of May 2007 and not a peep was said on the campaign trail about women’s reproductive rights.
I wrote a story about the Miss D case and the silence on abortion on the campaign trail. Then I quickly left the country because I failed to get the story I was really seeking.
Talking about ‘these things’
When I first heard that Irish women have to travel to the UK to get abortions, my first thought was: well, what’s happening to women who are illegal immigrants who cannot leave the country because it would be difficult to return.
If you’re a reporter in the US of course you become quite well versed in immigration laws and how many illegal immigrants cannot go home for major family events for decades because they fear they won't be able to re-enter the US.
In the Celtic Tiger of the late '90s-early '00s, with the booming economy attracting immigrants from all over the world, nobody seemed to have given it a thought.
I went from NGO to NGO, women’s groups to immigrant rights groups, trying to find a pregnant illegal immigrant woman who wanted to terminate her pregnancy. The closest I could get was statistics from the Irish Department of Justice of suspected illegal abortions among “foreign-born women” – mostly Chinese.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any of these women. At one stage, a sweet Irish volunteer at an immigrant rights group said, “We wouldn’t know these things, you know dear. Because we couldn’t ask, you see, in their countries, you don’t talk about these things”.
Whereupon I snapped: “If they’re from China – or India - let me assure you they have no problem discussing abortion because abortions are legal and freely available in these countries,” I noted. “The problem is in your head and I’m not sure how well you’re serving female immigrants here if you’re not going to talk about these things - or those things, whatever they may be.”
Heading North Now…
Five years later, I discovered another fascinating detail about Ireland and abortions – this time in the British territory of Northern Ireland.
While researching a story on Belfast’s first abortion clinic, I discovered that before the clinic opened last month, women from Northern Ireland – a British territory – had to travel to England to access abortions because the 1961 British law legalizing abortion does not apply to Northern Ireland.
Once in England, their abortions are not covered by the state National Health Service – so they have to pay from their pocket even though they are British citizens.
Of course now that Belfast has an abortion clinic, things could improve, but I doubt it. Anti-choice groups in the Northern Irish city have been known to viciously picket the few NGOs supporting women’s reproductive rights.
In a tiny city, where everyone seems to know everyone, I noted, I wasn’t sure how many women would feel comfortable under such scrutiny.
This is happening in Northern Ireland. Tens of thousands of miles away, in the southern Indian city of Belgaum, an Indian family has laid a 31-year-old woman to rest because the European Union country she immigrated to did not provide her an abortion.
I never thought I’d see this.