My country was dragged into the international spotlight last week. Because, not to put even remotely too fine a point on it, Ireland killed a woman. This news made me feel physically sick. This happened so appallingly close to home that for a while I couldn’t process it.
How close to home?
I was born in University Hospital Galway. Both my parents have worked there at various points in their lives. It is where my mother had her mastectomy. I worked in the foyer coffee shop for a summer when I was a teenager. This time last year, I sat with my dad in the intensive care unit, listening to a machine do his breathing for him and wondering if he would ever open his eyes again.
I spent significant stretches of my life in the same hospital that took Savita Halappavanar’s life.
I have been trying to write something about this for over a week. At first I was too angry, then I was too upset and ashamed of my country to form coherent sentences. The details of the case have been well-covered (here and here and here for anyone who missed it) so I’m not going to reiterate them again. I think it is extremely clear – to me, to Ireland and to the rest of the world – that there is no reason on this earth that Savita Halappavanar, a 31 year-old dentist from India, should not have survived her miscarriage and gone on to live a full and happy life with her husband.
To be honest, I have little to add to the storm of internet commentary around this. Many bloggers, both feminist and otherwise, have said it much better than I can. Of course abortion should be legal, safe and accessible to any woman who seeks one. Of course antiquated, misogynistic and deeply corrupt institutions such as the Catholic Church have no place in Irish laws, no place in our hospital or in our schools. But even though I have nothing profound or new to say, I cannot let this go unmarked.
I am glad that there has been international outcry. I am glad the rest of the world is looking on in horror. I am glad Ireland’s stance on abortion has been exposed as backward and brutal on an international stage. I just wish a woman did not have to die to make us wake up.
Election season in the US was a surreal experience for me. Feminist Internet is often Amerocentric. I got swept up in the (totally valid and important) outrage of American women as they wrestled with old white rich men to keep their hard-won rights. I was foaming at the mouth when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut. I head-desked and face-palmed when Todd Akin kindly explained women can’t get pregnant from “legitimate” rape. I laughed at the binders full of women. I fist-pumped for Tammy Duckworth and I wanted to high-five Rachel Maddow on a regular basis.
And while I never forgot, exactly, that abortion is still illegal in my own little home country, I wonder why I cannot bring the same fervour to bear on that knowledge. The recent Youth Defence campaign made many of us roll our eyes and sneer, but it did not drive us to action.
And now a woman is dead.
A lot of the commentary from bloggers and journalists worldwide characterize Ireland as a nation of Catholic fundamentalists. I have seen bloggers call UHG a Catholic hospital; but as Soraya Chemaly pointed out on HuffPo, it’s not. I think this an important distinction. Internationally, the assumption would be that Savita died in a Catholic hospital run by religious fanatics, because only fanatics would leave a miscarrying woman in agony for three days rather than abort her dying fetus. I can see that it would be difficult to understand that UHG is a state-run hospital, large and modern and one of the best in the country. UHG is not a Catholic hospital. It just exists in a country that is still so entrenched in Catholic dogma and tradition that our medical system is, by default, Catholic. It is so institutionalised that we almost forget its there. Most Irish Catholics don’t feel strongly enough about their religion to go to Mass once a week, but our doctors’ hands are still tied by an old man in Rome with a big fancy hat.
So in a way, it is almost worse. Because religious fundamentalism did not kill Savita Halappavanar. Apathy did.
Ireland’s attitude to abortion is characterized by apathy. Apathy and cowardice. The same apathy and cowardice that still makes us think we need to ask bishops for their opinion on moral issues and national legislation and medical procedures. You know. Bishops. Those old men who are so out-of-touch with reality that they consistently have been found to be sheltering pedophiles and enabling child abuse, then saying they didn’t understand it was wrong.
Our political parties are guilty of cowardice. They collectively know that taking on the issue of abortion (and consequently, the Catholic Church) could potentially damage their chances in the next election. But if no one mentions it, we can pretend it doesn’t exist and no one will have to risk their seat over something as trivial as important medical care for 50% of the population! Even though the European Court of Human Rights has explicitly ruled that Ireland’s abortion laws are at odds with fundamental human rights, Taoiseach Enda Kenny still doesn’t consider it a priority for the government. Apparently there’s a panel somewhere “examining” this ruling, but no report is forthcoming. As a pithy tweeter pointed out, the Irish government can pass legislation to save the banks in about twenty minutes, but basic reproductive rights for women has been two years on the back-burner.
The fact that abortion is legal in the UK has been a Get Out Of Jail Free card for our government in this respect. If Ireland was isolated in the middle of an ocean, this would have become an issue twenty years ago. But because safe legal abortions are an hour-long flight away, the Irish government can safely ignore the abortion issue and turn a blind eye while approximately 7000 women per year take a “weekend trip to London.”
And now a woman is dead.
I am guilty of apathy. I am guilty of knowing all this about my country, and also knowing that if I ever needed an abortion, I am privileged enough to be able to sneak over to London for an expensive private procedure and my family will support me in that decision. I am guilty of liking anti-Youth Defence posts on Facebook and signing online petitions, but never going a step further than my laptop to actually change things.
And now a woman, who was not Irish and not a Catholic, has died.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Ireland over the weekend to protest this travesty, many of my friends among them. I wish I could have been there with them.
But for now, I am sorry, Savita Halappanavar. I am sorry, Praveen Halappanavar. I’m sorry you came to Ireland because you thought it would be a good place to have a baby. This never should have happened. I apologise on behalf of my country. I hope the outcry doesn’t die down. I hope there’s a referendum. I hope we come out in our droves to vote and we change our laws.
Time to wake up, Ireland.
This post originally appeared on my old blog, deathofthenewgods.tumblr.com, and has been backdated to reflect this.