Thursday 23 January 2020

Martina Devlin: Trappings of civilisation can't cloak our medieval practices

Savita Halappanavar
Savita Halappanavar
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

IS it time to get angry yet? High time. Fury is the only sane and logical response to proof that, despite the paraphernalia of modernity, Ireland operates as a medieval society.

Justifiable anger – precipitating a demand for fast-tracked legislation – is the appropriate reaction to the death of a woman in an Irish hospital, who was refused a termination and went on to miscarry her baby.

We don't know if Savita Halappanavar may have lived had she been given the termination she asked for repeatedly, after medics at Galway University Hospital advised her 17-week pregnancy wasn't viable.

But we do know she requested treatment, which was denied to her – a shameful occurrence in a State which lays claim to membership of the civilised world. Religious beliefs have no place in medicine.

The lack of legislative guidance places hospital staff in legal limbo. They run the risk of being exposed to negligence claims due to uncertainty about the specific circumstances in which medical intervention is permissible.

Let's direct the responsibility to the appropriate authority, however: the political class. Ultimately, the failure to meet 31-year-old Savita's wishes was political rather than medical.

For 20 years, one administration after another – we're at government number seven since the 1992 X Case ruling – has flinched from clarifying the circumstances in which abortion is permissible. It's the ultimate act of political cynicism.

To say legislation is long overdue is an understatement – even following recent pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, delay-delay-delay has been the order of the day.

That's because abortion remains a turbulent flashpoint which divides like no other in our society. For some, it is indefensible under every set of conditions – even the chance of preserving a mother's life.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is legal when the life of a pregnant woman is at risk, the State has failed to legislate accordingly. This has left a grey area into which hospitals are afraid to stray.

However, such a situation can no longer be allowed to continue. Savita makes a compelling case. But it's also important to remember that she is so much more than simply an example of why official cowardice has been wrong. She was a beautiful, intelligent and beloved young woman whose life was cut short.

Act of God? Maybe. Inaction of humankind? Smacks of that, too. But her husband was brave enough to speak out because he wanted her death to achieve something.

So let's honour her life, and his courage, by not allowing the political class to choose inaction above action for another two decades. Let's not leave medics in no-man's land any longer.

In Savita's case, it appears they felt unable to carry out the procedure she requested while there was a foetal heartbeat. This, even though hospitals are the antithesis of letting nature take its course – hospitals are about intervention in the hopes of saving lives.

Except our merciless, medieval Ireland of 2012 hasn't fully taken that on board yet.

How deplorable – and yet how oddly inevitable, because it's true to past form – that it should take something as stomach-churning as a pregnant woman's death to concentrate minds on this.

So far, we're hearing a lot about various investigations. We don't need those delaying tactics, we need legislation.

It ought to be advanced as a matter of urgency to implement the wishes of the people, as expressed by referendum.

Mind you, that result apparently escaped a group of 15 Fine Gael TDs, who seem to believe they have veto powers over the findings of an expert group on abortion, whose report is now on the Health Minister's desk.

Earlier this year, the deputies insisted the report should be brought to the parliamentary party before going to Cabinet, which strikes me as an undemocratic desire to block any recommendations they dislike from an independent body.

And on the subject of special interest groups butting in, the Catholic bishops spring to mind. They have short memories for the outrageous abuse of power perpetrated by the organisation they represent, as they busily opine on the sanctity of a child's life.

Their predecessors in the Catholic hierarchy showed scant concern for children's lives when it continually prioritised the protection of its own institution above the safety of trusting young victims.

Let no one doubt the high level of influence which the Catholic Church continues to exercise in Ireland. And the high level of blindness among its upper echelons. On Tuesday, writing in the 'Irish Times', Bishop of Killala John Fleming said: "Ireland, without abortion, is recognised as one of the safest countries in the world to be a pregnant mother."

Tell that to Savita's grieving widower.

No one would claim abortion is desirable. But sometimes it is necessary.

Currently, a vacuum exists and Ireland is no place to be a pregnant woman. Her life matters less than her unborn child's – an inhumane stance, however many trappings of civilisation a country drapes itself in.

It's an act of rank hypocrisy for Ireland to take up its newly-won seat on the UN Human Rights Council in the wake of Savita's death. Her human rights ran a poor second behind Ireland's official definition as an uber-Catholic State.

Irish Independent

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