Savita’s Case Reveals Narrowness of “Catholic” Law in an Increasingly Borderless World

From RH Reality Check:  http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/11/26/savitas-pained-plea-heard-around-world

by Michelle Chen, Special to RH Reality Check
November 27, 2012

When the young woman lay in agony in the hospital late last month, there should have been nothing standing between her and an emergency medical intervention. But instead, what stood between Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year-old, Indian-born dentist, and the Irish doctor treating her, was a dangerously wide grey area that has long hovered over Ireland’s constitution. As she suffered through complications stemming from a miscarriage, she begged for an abortion. It was denied, reportedly because the fetal heartbeat was still present. Her husband later recalled that Savita was told by a medical consultant that an abortion would be impossible because Ireland “is a Catholic Country.”

That exchange, seared in her aggrieved family’s mind, lay bare the medieval nature of one of the Western hemisphere’s harshest abortion bans. Savita, a Hindu born in India, argued that she was “neither Irish nor Catholic.” None of that mattered, because Ireland’s anti-abortion law, as it was interpreted by her medical provider, trumped questions of both bodily sovereignty and cultural difference.

Savita’s case was one of countless pregnancies across Ireland in which a woman’s fate may come down to a subjective medical assessment colored by “conscience.” To qualify under Ireland’s near-total abortion ban, Savita’s life was apparently deemed not sufficiently endangered—until the two heartbeats ended after days of crippling pain, leaving both the fetus and the mother dead, the latter of sep­ticaemia.

Savita’s death has set off a wave of protests—not just among pro-choice activists in Ireland but also Ireland’s Indian immigrant community and in her home country. Two official investigations into the medical decisions leading up to Savita’s death are pending. Even the Indian government has gotten involved, with a meeting between the Indian ambassador to Ireland and the Irish foreign minister.

Yet Savita’s tragedy isn’t about her Indian identity per se; it points to the barriers facing all women in Ireland. The unwritten religious subtext of the policy—“cruelty disguised as piety,” in the words of one columnist—effectively places the bodies of both Catholic and non-Catholic women, citizens and migrants alike, under a sweeping, vague rule at odds with rights enshrined in international law.

The main legal guidance for the abortion ban is the case of X, involving a 14 year-old rape victim who was blocked from traveling to England for an abortion. The court set the medical threshold for abortion as “real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother.” The lack of concrete legislation on the standard has left the the one narrow avenue for legal abortion mostly in the hands of doctors. For a woman ineligible for a medically necessary abortion, virtually the only safe option is to travel to the United Kingdom or another country to terminate her pregnancy.

Continue reading at:  http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/11/26/savitas-pained-plea-heard-around-world

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