The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.
However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.
What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage – there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally. Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.
Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic. I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.
Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.
Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact, I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?
Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue. I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.
I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?
The bottom line is that with abortion, no-one can ever claim to be really right.
Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.
Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)