There are multiple investigations going on in the case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old Indian dentist who died in the hospital in Ireland, following a miscarriage. At first glance, it appears that she should have been granted the termination she requested immediately and that her death is a direct, painful result of failure on the part of the hospital to understand Irish law (at best), or ideologically-motivated malpractice at worst. While we await the results of this investigation, protests have been going on outside the hospital where it occurred and in many other cities across the country, demanding a change to the law.
This case matters because there are states in our own country whose laws aim to be as restrictive as Ireland’s. There is a tendency lately from proponents of criminalizing abortions to simply claim that the cases which would demand reasonable people to make exceptions simply don’t exist; nobody really gets pregnant from rape, and nobody really dies from pregnancy complications. Savita’s case is a tragic reminder that they do.
To the best of our understanding of Irish law, there is an exception provided for termination in the case of saving the woman’s life, however a European court two years ago demanded clarification of that law and it doesn’t appear that that has been given. How imminent does the danger have to be? It’s a question some women are finding themselves wrestling with here in America, as OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter has written about so maddeningly and so well. Apparently in Savita’s case, someone decided that her septicemia was not imminent enough danger; since there was still a fetal heartbeat, even though it was clearly established that the fetus was not viable and Savita was suffering a life-threatening infection, termination was refused. But while we await the results of the ongoing investigations as to who made the call to refuse termination and why, it’s worth talking about a few things.
If you talk to most proponents of criminalizing abortion, the argument about a woman’s right to control her own body is piffle, because the entire issue centers around whether life begins at conception; maybe life does begin at conception, but maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. The question of whether life begins at conception or not contains an implicit assumption that if the answer is yes, that the value of that life is greater than that of the vessel carrying it (in other words, the woman). Evangelicals and others basing their anti-abortion positions on similar religious convictions, when pressed on this question, will admit that they share this viewpoint – it’s a theological conviction. So, it’s getting distracted with so much hokum to get trapped into arguing whether life begins at conception or not, because that’s not really what it’s about.
The real question is whether a zygote, or a fetus, has the same rights as a fully grown adult woman with a life and responsibilities. When abortion becomes an option, the tension arises between a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life vs. the right of a non-developed person to exist. If you’re in the “woman is just a vessel and the vessel cannot possibly have more value than the zygote/fetus she carries” camp, it’s no great stretch to decide that once she is impregnated, her desires and indeed even her life become rather beside the point. It requires little imagination to see how this viewpoint brings waves of personhood bills washing through our Congress and state houses. From there it’s a very small step to, “Sorry you’re going to die, Mrs. Halappanavar, but this is a Catholic country. You’re screwed.”
So yes, I’m saying it. Maybe life begins at conception, but maybe that isn’t really the question. It’s not a technical argument about when life begins, it’s argument about whether that life has rights that supersede those of the woman carrying it. Now before anyone starts pointing a finger and howling “eugenicist!” or whatever you like, please consider that we as a society make lots of determinations about what rights a person has based on where they are, developmentally. It’s why four year olds aren’t allowed to hit the sauce and eight year olds can’t drive cars. It’s also why a physician might decline to treat an ailment in a very elderly patient, or why a paramedic in an emergency situation might choose to save one life over another. We recoil as a society from the idea that we might place unequal weight or value on different human lives, but we do it. We do it all the time, in ways that we don’t even think about. The abortion argument simply forces that question front and center where people have to deal with what’s uncomfortable about that.
So, we make determinations, based in large part on development. Even a very pro-choice person is not going to support terminating a pregnancy at 32 weeks. There is argument up and down the line on this, but in general, the arc of most people’s reasoning on this is that the more developed the life, the more extreme your reason needs to be for terminating. Again, it’s something that we do instinctively. Nobody wants an abortion, but in weighing the consequences of a pregnancy that threatens your life, health, or perhaps simply your pursuit of happiness, the central argument of competing rights is one that lives on a sliding scale. The absolutist notion that the moment you become impregnated, your life ceases to matter is problematic for every one of us.
And that’s a good part of what lingers over the case of Savita, whose life, it appears, was deemed worth risking for the sake of the life of a non-viable fetus. Does a 17-week fetus’s life have more value than the woman carrying it, or less? Does it have the same rights as, say, its mother who would leave behind a grieving spouse and perhaps other children if she died? Would its right to exist supersede the rights of a young teenager whose life is perhaps not threatened, but who knows that her future will be destroyed and she’ll be cast out of her home with few prospects and no skills or money if her unplanned pregnancy is discovered? We spend so much time arguing the exceptions –rape, incest, life of the mother- that we lose sight of the real question about why we hold the larger positions we hold on abortion and reproductive choice. Determining the point at which a fetus becomes enough of a baby that we no longer feel comfortable overriding its rights is a process akin to nailing mercury to a wall. But it’s a process we must participate in. Until this becomes the world that the pro-criminalization crowd would like to pretend it is, in which no abortion is ever needed for any reason, we need to fully appreciate what the argument really is, to effectively defend that right.