Sunday 19 January 2020

Martina Devlin: Give Savita's husband the public inquiry he demands

Picture: @stephenbyrne86
Picture: @stephenbyrne86

You'd think Praveen Halappanavar was asking for the moon. He's not. If he wants a public inquiry into his wife's death, a public inquiry should be held.

No wheedling, no pressure, no personal appeal to play nice from the Taoiseach to break the deadlock and meet the chairman of the Health Service Executive inquiry.

Savita's husband isn't the one who needs to play nice – it's the Irish Government, acting on behalf of its citizens. We must be fair, transparent and respectful to his wishes, provided they are reasonable. And it seems entirely reasonable that he should have strong views on the sort of inquiry in which he feels able to place his faith.

I don't blame Praveen for resisting HSE involvement – it smacks of self-regulation. The HSE runs the Galway hospital where his wife died, which means its impartiality could be called into question.

This man has lost his pregnant wife in traumatic circumstances which shame Ireland – the least we can do is bow to his request with good grace. There are two reasons why. First and foremost, because it is the right thing to do. Second, for damage limitation – the handling of this harrowing death is growing more farcical by the day, under an international spotlight.

Some argue that Praveen shouldn't set the terms of the inquiry. But one of his priorities is for the truth to emerge, and that's in everyone's best interests. This truth must not be hobbled by any hint of conflict of interest, or loyalty to colleagues in Ireland's relatively small medical community.

Really, you have to wonder where James Reilly parked his brain when he agreed to three senior doctors from Galway University Hospital being appointed to the seven-person panel. Clearly, the HSE inquiry must fold its tent. It is not viable – its credibility has been questioned and there is no way to repair the damage. Especially since the pro-life lobby challenges the neutrality of the chairperson, Professor Sabaratnam Arulkumaran.

Unfortunately, reservations expressed by pro-lifers make it inadvisable for him to head the probe, despite his eminent reputation. Caesar's wife rules. The findings of any report on which he signed off would be disputed.

Presumably this isn't the first time a hospital death has triggered a HSE inquiry. Surely there are protocols in place. Does the HSE always include senior medics from a hospital under investigation on such panels? If so, Praveen has highlighted a flaw in the system; if not, it shows a decidedly odd approach was adopted in this instance.

We can learn from Praveen's readiness to challenge the status quo – something that comes slow to us, even now.

He is casting a cold eye on Official Ireland's propensity to fudge, resist change and circle the wagons. He has no reason to give his blind trust to the first offer made to him.

Indeed, the attempt to have a HSE inquiry into Savita's death, with three members who could be called as witnesses appointed to the investigating team, gives him every reason to be distrustful.

Persisting with this inquiry in the face of Praveen's opposition, even with new members, is just plain counter-productive.

He wants the antiseptic of transparency. The truth, shaken out in the open, where it deserves to be: witness statements, the exact chain of events, the medical or legal reasons for positions adopted; ethical, too, if they were a factor – everything. Who wouldn't want the same, in his position?

A public inquiry will take longer than a HSE inquiry. No doubt about it. But let's do it properly and get it right. Besides, it's not as if the HSE investigation is steaming ahead. A public inquiry need not delay essential legislation following the X Case – that can and should proceed through the Dail anyway, ensuring hospitals know their precise legal position regarding pregnancy termination.

As Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath noted during the debate sparked by Sinn Fein's private members' bill (predictably defeated), the voices of maternity hospital masters have been compelling. They say there is ambiguity, so the Dail has an obligation to remove it.

But we're already hearing calls for media attention to leave the Savita case – move along here, nothing to see. No doubt some pro-lifers would prefer her name to be quietly forgotten, because her story has spotlit a murky corner of Irish society. She allows ordinary people to see there are nuances to the abortion debate, when some prefer to present it in black and white terms.

A number of politicians during the debate tied themselves in knots over it, terrified of being branded baby-killers by pro-lifers – as Saturday's marchers were in Dublin.

Three days ago, I received a postcard from a pro-lifer saying my mother had a lot to answer for and I should have been aborted. There has been other abuse, almost as nasty, but I share this piece to show how virulent – how personal – the abortion issue is becoming.

Pro-life campaigners need to take responsibility for the zealots who operate under their banner, thrusting bleeding foetus posters in people's faces, using the dirty trick of "pro-choice/pro-abortion" terminology to demonise those with a different viewpoint.

Being pro-choice does not mean someone is pro-abortion. Fundamentally, everyone is in favour of life. But some of us accept that circumstances arise where absolutist positions cannot be adopted because they lack compassion.

And speaking of compassion – as well as what's right – no more prevarication. Give Praveen his public inquiry.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss