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Messing With Texas, By Way of Galway

"There's four things I wanna do to bring an end to abortion... One, make it illegal... Two, uh... hmm... uh... oops."

“There’s four things I wanna do to bring an end to abortion… One, make it illegal… Two, uh… hmm… uh… oops.”

by Siobhan Carroll
WRUN Contributor

Hello dear readers! It has been a while. Like many of you, I suffered mightily from a post-election hangover and needed a month or so to recover. A trip to Ireland, copious amounts of turkey and one Christmas tree later, I have returned just in time for Rick Perry to remind us all why he is (thankfully) not president.

For me this story doesn’t start in Texas. It starts several thousand miles away in the Dublin hotel my husband and I were staying in when we sat down for breakfast and I perused the paper. Savita. A name we would hear almost constantly throughout the next several days of travels. W:RUN did a fantastic job of covering this story from afar, but for those who are not aware, Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant, miscarrying and in pain when she requested an abortion. She was denied said abortion by doctors in her Galway hospital because the fetus still had a heartbeat and “Ireland is a Catholic country”, according to her husband. Savita contracted an infection and died of sepsis, an avoidable outcome had a timely abortion been performed and appropriate antibiotic measures been taken. She was a wife, a daughter, a dentist in her adopted homeland- a productive and loved member of society.

I am an Irish American. This trip to the motherland was the 7th time I’ve gone over in less than 20 years. Much has changed in recent years-as my husband noted that “there isn’t a cross on every street corner now”- but Ireland is still very much a catholic country, and the church still wields enormous influence. This is a nation where divorce was forbidden in the Constitution. (What would Rush Limbaugh have to say about that?) It was only repealed by referendum in 1996 and even then by less than a percentage point. One better, you need to have lived apart from your spouse for 4 of the last five years to even begin the divorce process. The populace has responded by simply not getting married- the Irish Examiner reports that marriage rates in 2011 were the lowest in a decade, and the average age of marriage was 38 for men and 31 for women. In the US it was 29 and 26, respectively. This is an extraordinary illustration of how attempts to legislate people’s lives can backfire and result in unintended consequences.

After that breakfast (I know, that was a lot of information in between but you read my stuff for its entertaining and informative quality, not its brevity) my husband and I headed west from Dublin to visit Galway, my favorite place in Ireland if not the world. It’s about a two hour drive through lovely countryside and myriad unimpressed sheep. The radio occasionally played music (if you consider One Direction “music”) but the Irish are talkers and so much of the stations were discussing the news of the day, which was Savita. When we initially set out the DJs would stumble over her Indian last name, but they got so much practice so quickly it soon rolled off the tongue like marmalade.

The outrage was palpable. The only reason Savita’s death was made public was because her husband went to the press when a proper investigation was not launched. He has expressed concerns about the impartiality of the experts, two of whom are staff doctors at NUI Galway hospital, where Savita was treated and ultimately died. This is a nation that has elected two female presidents, legalized divorce, seen an incredible rise in economic opportunities for women since 1990, and yet a young woman was allowed to die because of an archaic attitude towards women’s health.

The day after the news broke, we were making our way up a treacherous switchback (think Lombard Street in San Fran but with cows instead of houses) on our way to the Cliffs of Moher. The only station that was coming in clearly was a call-in radio show discussing the Halappanavar case. I heard three women (one named Siobhan) describe how placing the life of an unborn fetus above that of it’s mother impacted their lives. One woman was denied painkillers and a diagnostic x-ray as she agonized through the pain of an undiagnosed bowel obstruction, on the pretense that either intervention might harm her fetus. Her bowel eventually burst, her daughter was born premature and died as a result of exposure to bacteria in the womb. Her mother lost part of her intestine, saw her daughter alive for only moments before they were separated, and slipped into a deep depression from which neither she nor her marriage recovered. Siobhan’s fetus had been diagnosed with a “genetic condition incompatible with life” and yet could not abort her pregnancy as long as the unborn child had a heartbeat. She and her husband traveled to Liverpool for the procedure, and returned with the cremated remains of their son as some sort of ghastly souvenir. The last story I heard was a woman in similar circumstances, as her fetus also suffered a significant genetic issue. Rather than travel abroad to abort she carried her child to term, having to explain to friends, family, coworkers and strangers who were overjoyed for her the sorrowful news that her baby would not survive outside her womb.

There were candlelight vigils held in memory of Savita’s life, and rallies so that her death may not be in vain. This horrible experience may be what wrenches Ireland’s abortion policy into something resembling at least the 20th century.

We’ve been back since just before Thanksgiving, living the life that normal people with two kids, jobs, parents, and a weird cat live. Post-election I haven’t had too much to whine about- Barry won, Joe went to my local Costco, New Hampshire has declared it Lady Time- all good stuff.

And then goddamn Rick Perry had to open his mouth about abortion:

“I don’t think any issue better fits the definition of ‘compelling state interest’ than preventing the suffering of our state’s unborn.”

It’s totally okay to laugh. I laughed riotously for a while in an attempt to the keep the anger from inducing a stroke.

I will let you know if and when my blood pressure returns to normal. In the meantime, fuck you Rick Perry. I apologize for the profanity but it is the only appropriate response to this horseshit. The “unborn” are precisely that – unborn. They aren’t people, they don’t have consciousness, and science disagrees about when a fetus might even feel pain. You know what suffering is Rick? Being born into a family already struggling financially. Or being born only to suffer for a short time on earth. Or being a waking, talking reminder to your mother of a brutal attack. Or simply being unwanted. Or being a woman forced to continue a pregnancy that she, for any reason, does not want to.

This isn’t a game, this isn’t harmless rhetoric. This is about quality of life for women and their children, both born and unborn. Savita’s story and the anecdotes I’ve provided are a vivid and nauseating illustration of what happens when government interferes between a woman and her doctor. These aren’t abstract ideas or theoretical scenarios, these are real women faced with awful outcomes because their ability to choose what was best for them was taken away. On the other side of the coin, doctors shouldn’t be afraid to do their jobs responsibly for fear of going to jail.

I note with chagrined irony that the state most reputed for its fierce independent streak – its “don’t mess with us” sloganeering – may be ideologically trading places with a nation long considered backward by its neighbors. As Ireland progresses, will Texas regress? The Lone Star state indeed.


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Protests in Galway (photo courtesy of the Guardian)

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.

Savita Halappanavar

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.