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
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA