Wednesday 17 January 2018

Our political vacuum where cowardice reigns

PEOPLE sometimes feel that politics is irrelevant and removed from the lives of ordinary people. Try telling that to Savita Halappanavar's grieving husband. Savita's death is directly linked to political cowardice.

The Indian national was 17 weeks pregnant when she went into University College Hospital, Galway, on October 21 suffering a miscarriage. It soon became apparent that her unborn child would not survive. In desperate agony, she and her husband appealed for the birth to be induced, terminating her pregnancy. This was not done, Savita's condition became critical and a week later she died of septicaemia.

After a bitter and divisive referendum campaign, the people of Ireland voted in 1983 to insert Article 40.33 into the Constitution, specifically protecting "the right to life of the unborn ... with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother..." In 1992 the X Case – involving a 14-yearold girl who was pregnant as a result of being rape – was brought to the Supreme Court, which found that abortion could legally be carried out in a case of real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct to the health, of the mother. At that time also, Supreme Court Judge Niall McCarthy criticised government failure to legislate in relation to abortion as "inexcusable". Since then nothing has changed. In the 20 years between the X Case each successive administration, this government included, has failed to fill the legislative void. Two years ago the European Court of Human Rights criticised the government for leaving the courts with a lack of clarity on abortion. Just last April Deputy Clare Daly's bill was defeated by a massive majority in a Dáil vote.

The reason governments have refused to address the issue is because they are afraid. Abortion, as we know only too well, is hugely emotive and divisive in Ireland. The debate pits liberal reformists against traditionalist, mostly Catholic, conservatives who form a powerful lobby that can damn TDs and governments to oblivion.

Ireland stands out for its strong position against abortion, largely due to the power of the Catholic Church. The Supreme Court's X Case decision in 1992 didn't change that but it did recognise that the right to life of the unborn was not greater than the right to life of the mother. It requires legislation to define the specific circumstances in which the life of the unborn should be forfeited to save the mother. Without such guidelines, doctors simply don't know what decisions they are legally empowered to make. An inquiry is underway into the death of Savita Halappanavar and we shouldn't pre-judge its findings. However, the case has come to highlight the vacuum in which doctors are forced to operate.

The Government will now be forced to address the issue, not because they want to or feel it is their duty – which it is – but because they are left with nowhere to hide. The divisions between the strained coalition partners are beginning to show on the issue. At the same time the pro- and anti-abortion lobbyists are rattling their shields and preparing for another bitter fight.

Pat Rabitte predicted some months ago that December would test the ability of the coalition to survive. He had the budget in mind at the time; he could hardly have imagined the challenge would come from the death of an Indian woman who has captured the hearts of the nation.

IT MUST be four weeks ago now since I drove my motorbike from Rathgar in south Dublin to Rush in north county Dublin. I was interviewing a 90-year-old amazing man who spent most of his working life with Aer Lingus.

This year Tanzania launched the first Young Scientist Exhibition in Africa and the man I was interviewing had long links with the Irish exhibition. I was preparing an article highlighting the genesis of the exhibition. Interview over, we said our goodbyes, I put on my helmet and went back out to my motorbike. It was a miserable day.

Earlier in the morning I had felt touches of a headache. I might well get the occasional 'man-flu' but it is seldom if ever I get headaches. Back out on the motorway, rain clogging up my visor and terrible traffic jams because of road works near Dublin Airport, that headache began to hurt. In fact, it was beginning to thump at my head and even my eyes were sore. The headache kept getting worse and worse until I was forced to go to the doctor to discover I had sinusitis. It's only in the last few days that I have been free of the damn thing. The exhilarating joy of getting out of bed in the morning free of a headache is incredible. The experience set me thinking about all sorts of things: how fragile we are, how easy it is to knock us out of our daily routine, but most of all, what must it be like for people who suffer great and horrendous pain and over long periods of time.

Some weeks ago I wrote in this column about a young man who had lost a leg and was in the process of having a prosthesis fitted. I have been amazed at how he has taken it all in his stride. I know someone whose niece's husband received serious brain injury back in the spring and is still in a coma. The pain and suffering of that for his family cannot be described in words. What can one say?

And just last week the shocking death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar in Galway. Every day and night we turn on our televisions and radios and see and hear about horrendous pain being caused on people. Last Wednesday I saw an Israeli bomb tear down on a car in Gaza setting it into a ball of fire and killing all the occupants.

Anyone who is watching RTE's 'Love Hate' or the US TV series 'Homeland' must at times put their hands to their eyes as indescribable pain is meted out to people, human beings, people like you and me. The writers of these series will say they are portraying, more or less, reality, a world that exists 'out there'. Maybe it has something to do with growing in age but the more I see of the world around me I can't help but say that yes, it is 'a valley of tears'.

Of course great things happen. People experience wonderful happiness and joy. On Friday cycling to work I was stopped at traffic lights and beside me was a young man with his small child on a little carrier saddle on the back of the bike. Great smiles from both of them. And they are the important moments. But always, lurking somewhere or other, there is pain and suffering and wrong doing. And so much of it could be avoided, but so much of it is a given and part of our lives.

When I was in my late 20s I lived in a Dominican community. In the house at the time was a man whom I presumed was quite old. He may not have been that old at all but he was always complaining of being in pain. Eventually I more or less stopped listening to him, paid no attention to his pain.

My tiny four-week discomfiture has made me make a promise. Be far more sympathetic to people who are in pain and suffering. At least listen to them and try to understand. Be there with them and for them. A friend of mine often says to me she will listen to no words from anyone unless they have wiped the bottoms of the old and infirm, been with them in their pain. She has a point.

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