Crime Against Womanhood How many more Savitas to die for the Catholic Church to change its abortion laws?

The antithesis—a seemingly progressive country with archaic laws killed Savita Halappanavar. Like all migrants the Halappanavars moved to Ireland for a better pay packet and job prospects. Little did they know that it could cost 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar—a dentist—her life. Savita died on October 28 in Ireland Galway Hospital from blood poisoning after she was allegedly denied an abortion following a miscarriage seventeen weeks into her pregnancy. According to Brinda Karat of CPM, “No religion mandates that you watch a woman dying and you refuse to give an abortion.” Savita’s repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy were turned down by the consultant treating her who said, “As long as there is a fetal heart beat we cannot do anything.” When Savita pleaded in agony for termination of her pregnancy the consultant said, “This is a Catholic country and the law here forbids abortion.’’ Savita’s plea that she was neither Irish nor Catholic therefore she was entitled to an abortion to save her life went unheeded. When you look at Savita’s photographs you see a very pretty, lively girl there. She was so talented a dentist, a Bharatanatyam dancer. This was not the way for her to go. Women activists world over are asking the pertinent question—don’t women have a right over their bodies?

In 1992, Irish Supreme Court had observed that abortions should be allowed, if there is substantial risk to the mother’s life. There is however no law yet which creates confusion among the medical fraternity on the course to take over abortion requests. In india the medical termination of pregnancy act 1971 says that abortion in India is legal until the 20th week of pregnancy and thereafter only if the mother’s health is at risk. In Savita’s case doctors refused to carry out an abortion citing orthodox Catholic laws though she had suffered a miscarriage.

In 2008, a Bhayander couple had approached the Bombay High Court seeking permission for an abortion after tests revealed the child had congenital defects. Since the woman was 24 weeks pregnant the court refused permission to abort. But the woman suffered a miscarriage in her 27th week of pregnancy. Our Indian laws are more liberal, abortion is allowed at any stage if the mother’s life is at risk. According to Dr AR Undre, Head of the Department of the Saifee Hospital, “Savita’s case is one of medical negligence. Every doctor takes the Hippocratic Oath to save lives therefore Savita’s life should have been saved irrespective of the anti-abortion law.”

According to a Vatican source, “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.” This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion that is to say abortion willed either as an end or as a means is gravely contrary to the moral law. According to Mother Teresa, “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion because it is war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. Any country that accepts abortion is not leading its people to love but to use violence to get what they want.”

It is worth mentioning an incident, which happened about five years ago but I still remember it vividly. The wife of a plumber in my area was pregnant. The sonography showed that she was going to have a deformed baby. The fetus would be born dead or be severely deformed. This was the medical conclusion. The woman was admitted to a civic hospital in the middle of the night in pain. The doctors felt that she should go for an abortion to avoid complications. When I visited the couple in the hospital, the doctors informed me of the gravity of the situation and the risk to the mother’s life if an abortion was not performed on time. I immediately counseled the plumber and asked him to sign the consent form agreeing for the abortion to be performed on his wife to save her life, which he did. Today after five years the mother is alive because abortion was done at the proper time and the couple have a healthy male child. During such a crisis the problem should not be of religion but of application of mind to save a life.

It is said that because of the outdated abortion laws in Ireland women from Ireland have to travel to England to get abortions done. Many working-class Irish women unable to pay for a private abortion in England buy pills from the internet and self induce abortions posing a threat to their lives.

It is interesting to note what the BBC ethics guide has to say in favour of abortion.

1)   Women have a moral right to decide what to do with their bodies.

2)   The right to abortion is vital for gender equality.

3)   The Right to abortion is vital for individual women to achieve their full potential.

4)   Banning abortion puts women at risk by forcing them to use illegal abortionists.

5)   The right to abortion should be part of a portfolio of pregnancy rights that enables women to make a truly free choice—whether to end pregnancy or not. We should regard women as a person and not just as a container of the foetus.

Parveen Halappanavar, husband of Savita, has asked for a “full public inquiry” into the circumstances of her death. In spite of public outrage, the rallies and candle light vigils across Ireland asking for a change in the country’s abortion laws India has not asked the Irish government for an independent public investigation into Savita’s death, which shows the callousness of our Indian government. Religious sentiments, however strong they may be, should never become an obstacle when it comes to saving lives. The sooner the Irish government realises this practicality, the better it would be for its women citizens.

By Indira Satyanarayan

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