Ireland's law and Catholic culture allowed Savita Halappanavar to die

The tragic case of a woman who was miscarrying, who died because doctors wouldn't give her a termination, shows the danger of fetishising the life of the unborn child.

The tragic death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital, apparently after being refused an emergency abortion, has not surprisingly provoked outrage. Although she was found to be miscarrying after being admitted to hospital suffering from back pain on 21 October, for three days staff declined to remove the foetus on the grounds that it still had a detectable heartbeat. Most shockingly of all, a doctor is said to have told Savita and her husband that there was no question of a termination, because "this is a Catholic country".

Ireland's health executive has already announced an inquiry, but that hasn't stopped demands that the country's strict abortion law be re-written. Demonstrations are taking place in Dublin and at the Irish embassy in London. The case is heartbreaking. The details of Savita's final days, spent in agony before she succumbed to the septicaemia and e.coli she contracted when her cervix had remained dilated for 72 hours, are almost too shocking to contemplate. It seems, on the face of it, inhuman that doctors would have allowed her to suffer out of some misplaced concern for the life of her (clearly unsaveable) foetus, or because of their understanding of Irish law or Catholic doctrine. Surely, many will think, this tragedy gives the lie to arguments that opposition to abortion is founded on a respect for life and human dignity. 

This was no case of an elective abortion. Savita was not trying to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. She was miscarrying and crying out in pain. The responsibilities of the medical staff seem plain: to facilitate the ending of her medical emergency as quickly and safely as possible. That the foetus could not have survived the procedure cannot be relevant in circumstances where it is already doomed. To expedite the ending of the pregnancy in such circumstances cannot properly be called "abortion" at all. This looks, on the face of it, like a case of medical negligence that has little to do with the abortion debate as such.

It is, for one thing, difficult to square the treatment of Savita Halappanavar with the guidelines contained in Ireland's Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners (pdf), which provide that:

Rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother.

Not surprisingly, pro-life voices are already making these points, besides calling for caution and demanding that the case not be used as a political football. Several have taken to Twitter to stress that, however strong their own opposition to abortion as a rule, they would have made an exception in a case such as this where the mother's life was in danger. One told me that he'd "like to think that anyone of any persuasion would be sickened to their stomach."

Nevertheless, the reported facts suggest that Ireland's abortion law, and its Catholic culture, were the context within which these horrific events unfolded. As recently as September, an "international symposium" meeting in Dublin declared that "direct abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a woman", though it added, confusingly, that "legitimate medical treatment" that resulted in pregnancy termination didn't count as such. The statement claimed that "misinformation abounds in public debate" around this issue. But if it is misinformation, Savita's death suggests that it isn't just the public that is misinformed. Her doctors, too, appear to be labouring under the same delusion.

This is obviously a law that requires urgent clarification. On that, I hope that campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate would agree. Even if this does turn out to be a case of medical negligence, even if (as seems likely) the law as it stands would have allowed doctors to intervene and so save Savita's life, they seem to have have believed differently. And this is what mattered. It is particularly shameful that Irish governments have failed to legislate in the twenty years since the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal where the mother's life is in danger.

It would be both simplistic and not particularly helpful to turn Savita Halappanavar into a pro-choice martyr. Her tragic death, whether or not the Irish law caused it, is fairly irrelevant to the more general issue of a woman's right to request a termination where her health is not at risk. It does, though, demonstrate all too vividly the dangers of an extreme anti-abortion position. The mindset that denies women the right to make choices for their own lives and over their own bodies leads all too easily to the fetishising of the unborn child, according it a special sanctity beyond the merely human. The principle of preserving life comes to be more important than life itself. 

An anti abortion protester holds up a placard. Photo: Getty
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Interview: Momentum’s vice chair Jackie Walker on unity, antisemitism, and discipline in Labour

The leading pro-Corbyn campaigner sets out her plan for the party.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters celebrate after his second win, Jackie Walker – vice chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign organisation Momentum, a Labour member and an activist – talks about the result and the next steps for Labour’s membership.

Walker is a controversial figure in the party. Her history as a black anti-racism activist and advocate for Palestine, and her Jewish background on both sides of her family, did not keep her from being accused of antisemitism for a February Facebook post about the African slave trade. In May, she was suspended from the Labour party for her comments, only to be reinstated a few weeks later after a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Anger was reignited at an event hosted by Momentum that she spoke at during Labour party conference, on whether Labour has an antisemitism problem. Walker said the problem was “exaggerated” by Corbyn’s critics, and used as a “weapon of political mass destruction” by the media. (We spoke to Walker before this debate took place).

After a summer plagued by suspensions of Labour members, accusations of hateful speech on both sides, and calls for civility, Walker discusses what steps need to be taken forward to help bring the party together.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke in his acceptance speech about wiping the slate clean and the need to unite the party. What steps can members from all sides take to unite the party?

I think people have got to stop using antagonistic language with each other, and I think they’ve got to stop looking for ways to undermine the democratic will of the membership. That has now been plainly stated, and that’s even with something like 120,000 members not getting their vote because of the freeze. He has increased his majority – we all need to acknowledge that.

Is there anything that Corbyn’s supporters need to do – or need not to do – to contribute towards unity?

I can’t speak for the whole of Jeremy’s supporters, who are numbered in their hundreds and thousands; I know that in my Labour group, we are always bending over backwards to be friendly and to try and be positive in all of our meetings. So I think we just have to keep on being that – continue trying to win people over by and through our responses.

I was knocking doors for Labour last week in support of a local campaign protesting the planned closure of several doctors’ surgeries – I spoke to a voter on a door who said that they love the Labour party but felt unable to vote for us as long as Corbyn is leader. What should we say to voters like that?

The first thing I do is to ask them why they feel that way; most of the time, what I find is that they’ve been reading the press, which has been rabid about Jeremy Corbyn. In all the research that we and others have done, the British public agree overwhelmingly with the policies espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, so we’ve got to get on the doorstep and start talking about policies. I think that sometimes what happens in constituency Labour party groups is that people are saying “go out there and canvass but don’t mention Jeremy”. I think that we need to do the opposite – we need to go out there and talk about Jeremy and his policies all the time.

Now that Corbyn has a stronger mandate and we’ve had these two programmes on Momentum: Channel 4’s Dispatches and BBC’s Panorama, which were explanations of the group, Momentum’s role will be pivotal. How can Momentum contribute towards party unity and get its membership out on the doorstep?

I think we have to turn our base into an activist base that goes out there and starts campaigning – and doesn’t just campaign during elections but campaigns all the time, outside election time. We have to do the long campaign.

The Corbyn campaign put out a video that was subsequently withdrawn – it had been condemned by the pressure group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has filed a disciplinary complaint against him. What are your thoughts on the video?

I find their use of accusations of antisemitism reprehensible – I am an anti-racist campaigner and I think they debase the whole debate around anti-racism and I think they should be ashamed of themselves. There is nothing wrong with that video that anyone could look at it and say this is antisemitic. I would suggest that if people have doubt, they should look at the video and judge for themselves whether it is antisemitic.

There’s been a compliance process over the last several months that’s excluded people from the party for comments on social media. Now that Corbyn is in again, how should compliance change?

One of the issues is that we have gotten Jeremy back in as leader, but control of the NEC is still under question. Until the NEC actually accepts the recommendations of Chakrabati in terms of the workings of disciplinary procedures, then I think we’re going to be forever embroiled in these kinds of convoluted and strange disciplinary processes that no other political party would either have or put up with.

There have been rumours that Corbyn’s opponents will split from the party, or mount another leadership challenge. What do you think they’ll do?

I have absolutely no idea – there are so many permutations about how this game could now be played – and I say game because I think that there are some who are Jeremy’s opponents who kind of see it as a power game. I read a tweet somewhere saying that the purpose of this leadership election – which has damaged Labour hugely – has nothing to do with the idea that actually Owen Smith, his challenger, could have won, but is part of the process to actually undermine Jeremy. I think people like that should really think again about why they’re in the Labour party and what it is they’re doing.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.