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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 It was only repealed by referendum in 1996 and even then by less than a percentage point.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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W:RUN’s Women of 2012 – Women Who Shaped the Year

If it’s December, it’s time for “year in review” posts and this probably will not be our last round-up but it is one we are pretty excited about. While publications like Time pick just one “Person of the Year”, we see no reason to limit our list of female news-makers of 2012 to just one woman. What we have assembled below is a list of just a few of the women who have inspired us this year. We believe many of them will continue making news, shaping policies, and representing us well, long after 2012 is over.

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Malala Yousafzai recuperating in a UK hospital after the shooting.
Photo credit: NHS

Malala Yousafzai – Until October of this year, schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was best known in the West for the blog she wrote for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule in her home in Mingora, Pakistan. She criticized the Taliban’s policies of denying education to girls, both in the blog and in a later documentary for the New York Times. Then, on October 9, Malala was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban-affiliated gunman as she rode the bus home from school. She survived the attack and is currently recuperating in a British hospital. The Taliban has vowed to repeat their attempt on her life calling her a “symbol of the infidels and obscenity.” Did we mention she is 15?

To the rest of the world, however, Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of courage and determination, and of the need to demand education opportunities for all children, regardless of gender. UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown declared November 10, 2012 “Malala Day” in support of a UN petition that demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015. In addition, Malala has been nominated for a International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu and there is a petition for her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. As of the time of this writing, Malala was third in Time Magazine’s online poll for its Person of the Year 2012 distinction.

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Saudi Olympian Sarah Attar waves to the crowd in London before competing in her race.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Women of the 2012 Olympics – By the end of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, some in the media might have gotten sidetracked in covering the non-troversy around Gabby Douglas’ hair or the beach volleyball uniforms and missed some legitimately important milestones for women in sports. For the first time in the history of the modern games, every participating nation sent at least one female athlete, an achievement made possible by increased pressure on Saudi Arabia in the final weeks before the Games. For the Saudi women (and women in other countries where the government or religious leaders actively prevent women from participating in sports), participation in the Olympics was politically significant. Sarah Attar, the 19-year old Saudi athlete who ran the 800 meter track event in London, said she hopes her presence will encourage other Saudi women to become more athletic. If that happens, Saudi Arabia may follow a path followed by Western nations, where increased participation by women in sports happens in tandem with advancement in other areas. The Saudi government plans to allow women’s suffrage for the first time, starting in 2015.

For American women, the London Games were a time to celebrate the accomplishments of Title IX, the article of the Higher Education Act that demands equal funding and opportunities in college, including (but not limited to) sports. Nowhere was that more clear than in the makeup of the team. For the first time, female athletes outnumbered males on the team. Performance-wise, the women delivered as well, winning the majority of the gold medals and the majority of the overall medals won by the U.S. team. The best part of all, it happened with billions of people watching.

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The Democratic women of the new Senate gather for a meeting with Senator Mikulski shortly after the election.
Photo credit: Senator Barbara Mikulski. (D-MD)

Women of the 113th Congress – Starting in January 2013, record numbers of female legislators will serve in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and in state legislatures nationwide. While even these numbers of female lawmakers in the U.s still leaves us embarrassingly low ranked when compared to other nations and are far from gender parity given the U.S. population, it is a definite step in the right direction. (No shoe jokes, please. We’re already have enough on our hands clearing the traffic jam in the Senate ladies room!) Seeing the female candidates we supported break through, especially after the two years of misogynistic legislative Hell that began in 2010, made for an especially sweet election night. Beyond that, though, we view the 2012 election and the class of legislators it produced as something far more important than numbers. It was the logical next step in what should become the “new” normal. Now that there are 20 female United States Senators, and nearly 80 female members of the House, why should we settle for anything less? As recently as 1992, there were only two female U.S. Senators. Starting in January, the entire Congressional delegation from New Hampshire and its governor will be female. More importantly, female lawmakers are gaining power, influence and the ability to lift each other up and build a deep bench of candidates who could someday rise even higher. Why should we wring our hands wondering who will be the “next Hillary Clinton” when we have the power to develop the next TEN Hillary Clintons? Or more? Women are 53 percent of the American electorate! The answer is that we shouldn’t settle. The direction was made clear. We’re moving forward. Is our nation’s first female President a member of the 113th Congress? It’s impossible to know that now but one thing is certain, whoever she is, she will benefit from it.

So, Liz Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Tulsi Gabbard, Tammy Duckworth, Heidi Heitkamp, Kyrsten Sinema, Mazie Hirono and the rest of the Class of 2012, no pressure or anything, but it’s time to get to work.

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Cecile Richards with supporters on the steps of Florida’s capitol.
Photo credit: Planned Parenthood Action

Cecile Richards and Planned Parenthood Supporters – The Susan G. Komen Foundation learned a costly lesson this year: Do not mess with Cecile Richards and Planned Parenthood. In February of this year, the Komen Foundation, the big kid in the breast cancer funding sandbox, announced that it would stop giving financial support for cancer screenings performed at Planned Parenthood clinics, citing controversy over Planned Parenthood’s (unrelated) reproductive health services. Komen quickly learned that while it may own the pink ribbon logo, Cecile Richards has a pink army and that army was more than willing to go to work for Planned Parenthood. They took to Twitter, Facebook, online forums and the phones, calling their elected officials, signing petitions, and – most embarrassing for Komen – pulling out of its Race for the Cure events and donating that money to Planned Parenthood instead. In just two days following Komen’s funding announcement, Planned Parenthood raised over $3 million for its breast care screening program, more than three times the amount of funding it would have gotten from Komen. But it wasn’t about the money. By that time the backlash against Komen was too much, regional Komen affiliates were speaking out against the decision and at least 26 U.S. Senators had publicly called on Komen to reverse what they called a “politically-motivated” decision. On February 3, just three days after it announced it would pull funding, Komen CEO Nancy Brinker reversed course, and pledged to fund all existing grants to Planned Parenthood and to maintain the group’s eligibility for future grants. The incident proved politically embarrassing to Komen, and some argue that it has yet to fully recover its reputation.

For Richards and Planned Parenthood, the clash proved to be a key test of their political, media and social muscle. They were able to leverage their reputation with women, their social media presence, and their political power to score a victory on the national stage. (Actual quote: “Will Planned Parenthood please give Twitter back?”) Planned Parenthood would spend the rest of 2012 using these lessons  in other funding battles with states and in the November elections. While their battles with states like Arizona and Texas wear on, the numbers from the election don’t lie: the Sunlight Foundation calculated that Planned Parenthood’s PAC got the highest ROI on its campaign spending of any U.S. PAC in the 2012 cycle – with 97% of its spending on races achieving their desired outcomes. Memo to Komen, Cecile Richards and her supporters are wearing the new pink.

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Sandra Fluke unintentionally became the poster girl for the war on women but stepped up the challenge.
Photo credit: MSNBC

Sandra Fluke – Of all the things that we learned in 2011 and 2012 from the war on women, none was more irritating than this: when misogynists are faced with an articulate, educated women who has facts on her side, they will fall back on the time honored tradition of calling her a slut.  Some things never change. As part of W:RUN’s long-standing policy of not referring to certain media blowhards by name, we will not say who actually called Georgetown law-student (and now women’s rights activist) Sandra Fluke a series of derogatory names but you certainly know who it is. It’s not worth the keystrokes to type his name. It almost doesn’t even matter because ever since her Congressional testimony, and especially since her appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, most of the other right-wing media talking heads and even some candidates have piled on with their criticism of Fluke for…for….being someone they really don’t like, we guess. It’s hard to tell exactly what they don’t like about Sandra Fluke except that they think she’s got some nerve talking about birth control out loud like that. In the end, Fluke had the last laugh. Mitt Romney, who famously could not muster the energy to defend her against the worst slurs, lost big in November and took many of Fluke’s harshest critics down with him. And as for He-who-shall-not-be-named? The advertiser exodus from his show following this incident has the stations that carry it reporting heavy losses. And for the record, karma probably doesn’t like being called names either…but you get our drift.

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The 2012 Presidential Debate Moderators.
Photo credit: the New York Times

The Moderators: Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz – After a twenty-year gap, the Commission on Presidential Debates finally selected two women to moderate debates this election cycle: awarding Martha Raddatz the Vice Presidential debate and Candy Crowley the (often maligned) town-hall debate. Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer were given the remaining Presidential debates. Leading up to the debates, former debate moderator Carole Simpson publicly worried that in giving women these “lesser” contests, they might still be marginalized, and others in the chattering classes shared that worry. Then we watched the debates. and gave each other giant estrogen fueled high-gives because – to be frank – Raddatz and Crowley Kicked. Ass.

Raddatz, charged with moderating the Vice Presidential debate between two high energy candidates (and after most observers agreed that Lehrer pretty much lost control of the first Obama/Romney debate) drew high praise. Seated onstage between Biden and Ryan, Raddatz was a calm yet decisive force between two notoriously explosive personalities. She challenged Biden on Benghazi intelligence and demanded “specifics” and “math” from Ryan on his budget. She didn’t always get straight answers but she didn’t back down. While we took issue at her framing her abortion question in religion, we can hardly think of another moderator – male or female – who could have kept order between these two candidates better than Raddatz did.

Crowley, in particular, took heat from the right for fact-checking Romney’s claims on Benghazi but it is often overlooked that she did not handle the President with kid gloves either. She challenged him on unemployment and several times sharpened the audience’s questions about the economy with tougher numbers. In short, she heeded Simpson’s advice and refused to allow herself to be marginalized. Both Raddatz and Crowley did what journalists are supposed to do: lead with the facts. That’s the whole point of giving the roles of debate moderators to journalists in the first place, isn’t it? This year, two extraordinary women got their chance to do it  and they certainly made the most of it.

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Maddow on set, sadly without the glasses.
Photo credit: NBC Universal

Rachel Maddow – In TV news, election night coverage – especially presidential election night coverage – goes to the “A” team. To the undisputed stars of the networks. It’s not a perk, it’s a right. You rise to the top of a given news team and that’s your prize. You get to tell the viewing audience the results of all the races, especially the top one. In 2008, MSNBC gave the honor of reporting that the nation had elected Barack Obama to Keith Olbermann, then its top star. In 2012, it was Rachel Maddow who made the network’s official call that Obama had been re-elected. Maddow, the first openly gay anchor of a prime time news program, readily announces herself as a liberal nerd – something that instantly endears her to the younger demographics that are increasingly hard to reach for cable news networks.

That Maddow is the now MSNBC’s top star says a lot about the network’s plan to reach a generation of Americans who’d rather get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Insert your own joke about the hipster glasses here.) To that end, Maddow’s biggest 2012 moment actually came after November 6, when her eloquent summary of the results and “other real stuff” went viral two days after the election. It was nearly impossible to be online without running into versions of the clip on social media, blogs, and even in liberal fundraising emails. It was popping up in our newsfeeds days, even weeks after the election. That clip did exactly what MSNBC is hoping Maddow’s geeky brand of gravitas will do: expand the reach of their news onto different platforms. In a quieter way, Maddow may be able to help  MSNBC do what CBS tried to do with Katie Couric: win with a woman at the wheel.

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Savita Halappanavar, in an undated photo provided by her family.
Photo credit: Irish Times

Savita Halappanavar – Tragically, Savita Halappanavar did not live to see the end of 2012 but her life, and death, may become a watershed moment for the Irish government and its traditionally strong (some say, inextricable) tie to the Roman Catholic Church. Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year old dentist from India who moved to Ireland with her husband. This past October, when 17 weeks pregnant with her first child, she went to a Galway hospital complaining of severe back pain. According to Savita’s husband, the hospital concluded that she was having a miscarriage. Savita’s condition worsened steadily over but when she requested an abortion to end the pregnancy, the hospital allegedly refused, stating that Ireland was “a Catholic country.” Finally, when the fetus’ heartbeat could no longer be detected, doctors removed it but by then Savita had developed septicemia, and she later died. Her death prompted demonstrations throughout Ireland and England, outrage from Indian officials, demands that the Irish government clarify its abortion laws, and most recently, a possible hearing before the European Court of Human Rights.

Given that multiple inquiries are also ongoing in Ireland, it does not seem that the question of whether the hospital bears legal responsibility for Savita Halappanavar’s death will be settled anytime soon. However, the discussion about women’s reproductive freedom that it has sparked in Ireland and in other countries was clearly long overdue. Welcome or not, it now has to happen.

Who else should be on this list? Tell us in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


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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.