Monday 20 May 2019

'I was trying to be as kind as I could, but it just came out wrong'

MIDWIFE Anne Maria Burke came to the end of her evidence and coroner Ciaran McLoughlin paused for a beat.

There was something he wanted to raise – but she might find it upsetting, he warned.

"Did you say to Savita, a remark: 'This can't be done, this is a Catholic country?'" he asked.

An expectant and deathly silence fell on the Galway courtroom as Ms Burke exhaled sharply with an affirmative: "Yeah."

"Yes, yes I did to be honest," she admitted faintly. In a tumble, her words rushed out then.

"I've been upset about this, I'm very upset," she said.

"I didn't mention it in a hurtful context. It was a conversation we had."

It was clear that Ms Burke found it to be a huge relief to get this off her chest and clear up what she had said to Savita Halappanavar at her hospital bedside.

At this moment, there was a dawning flicker of recognition in the courtroom as to what exactly might have happened here.

In her neat lemon blouse and orange cardigan, capable short hairstyle and her quiet, confidential manner of speaking, Ms Burke came across as a familiar, motherly type of person.

When she arrived in the courtroom earlier in the morning, running the gauntlet of photographers, she was frankly terrified, clutching her head with her hands in horror the moment she reached the safety of the lobby.

"You're safe now," a friend soothed.

She had sat, grey-faced in the benches, all through Dr Katherine Astbury's evidence in the morning.

Called to give her evidence in the afternoon, nothing immediately stood out for observers. Her conversation with Savita had not been mentioned.

We did not know whether the coroner had been informed in advance that it was she who had made this highly controversial and divisive comment to the miscarrying mother who had asked doctors for a termination, or if he had merely suspected.

Ms Burke went on to explain what had happened. She spoke quickly, deeply anxious to put things right, or at least to explain that she had meant no harm.

She had had a conversation with Savita while there was "another lady" in the room, she said, meaning Savita's friend Mrudula Vasealli – who had given evidence the previous day.

Savita had been puzzled about why she had been refused a termination. She had talked about India and how it would have been "no problem there" and she had mentioned her Hindu faith.

Ms Burke said she had tried to explain about the denied termination, adding: "I knew it was not possible because I'd been informed."

"Savita was upset," she said.

"It was not said in the context to offend her. I'm sorry if I came across . . . I don't think I came across as insensitive at the time. It does sound bad now but I didn't mean it that way."

In his seat, Praveen Halappanavar sat with his arms folded, his face set and unmoved. It was clear he remained deeply angered by what had been said to his wife.

Ms Burke hurried on in her soft voice, stumbling and halting in her eagerness to explain as best she could why she had said what she did.

"It was the law of the land, there were two referendums and the Catholic Church were pressing it.

"It was more to give information and to kind of throw light on our culture as opposed to her culture. I was trying to be sensitive," she said.

The coroner leaned forward in his seat. "That went around the world," he said sternly and very clearly.

Ms Burke nodded wretchedly.

Our public hospitals do not follow any religious dogma of any persuasion, he said.

"Yes," Ms Burke said.

She went on to explain her remarks had been nothing to do with providing "medical care", – it had been "a chat".

"It was something I said that I regret, it was giving her information because she was a bit puzzled."

"My back was to the wall a bit," she said, her voice dropping, again repeating how Savita had talked of her Hindu faith and she had wanted to explain.

"I really had to say something," she said, with the first note of defensiveness in her voice.

"I was trying to be as kind as I could. I wouldn't have said it . . . it came out the wrong way."

Her voice died out and she looked up helplessly.

At last John O'Donnell, barrister for Praveen, stood up and addressed her with kindness.

"Thank you for your honesty," he said.

Irish Independent

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