The killing of Savita Halappanavar

This is a guest post by Sarah Thomasin. Sarah has a poetry blog and a blog about being a trans ally. She is also on Twitter @wordgeeksarah.

On October the 21st, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to hospital complaining of back pain. She was told that her pregnancy was miscarrying. Her cervix was already dilated and leaking amniotic fluid. Nothing could be done: the foetus would die whether or not it was removed from her womb. She was going to lose her baby.

Grief-stricken, but realistic, Savita made a reasonable and sensible request. She asked that her pregnancy be medically terminated and the foetus removed from her body. This request was refused repeatedly, Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws being cited. The dying foetus could not be removed until no heartbeat was detected. Savita and her husband were assured that the her ordeal would soon be over.

It took three days for the foetus to die.

Three days.

Three days of agony in which Savita’s condition rapidly worsened until she died of septacaemia a few days after her unborn child.

Being forced to carry a dying foetus inside her until its heart stopped beating weakened and poisoned her body. She died in pain, in distress, in the knowledge that her life could have been saved.

Understandably, we are angry.

We are angry with the Catholic church for its stance on women’s reproductive rights.

We are angry with the Irish government for legislating against abortion.

We are angry with the hospital for not saving a life, just so that an already doomed foetus could die slowly.

We are angry with the pro-life campaigners who claim that banning abortion does not endanger women’s lives.

There is so much to be angry about that I feel that we are in danger of missing the wider context.

It’s always the way, though, isn’t it? When we’re angry, it can be hard to analyse things. We just want to rage. And, perhaps, part of us doesn’t want it to get any worse.

But I’m sorry, this story does get worse.

According to Savita’s widower Parveen, his wife’s requests for a termination were met with the response, “This is a Catholic country”. When I read that I went cold. I’ve heard things like that before.

If someone starts telling you what country you’re in, or telling you screamingly obvious facts about that country, it’s time to look at them sideways. If your appearance, name or accent mark you out as foreign, you want to be wary of people who say that.

If those people are making important medical decisions about you, be very, very frightened.

I’ve heard that turn of phrase used in schools to shut down kids from immigrant backgrounds. I’ve heard workers use it to intimidate and undermine colleagues.

People simply do not bring up the country they are in in a context like that unless they are being racist.

The only reason I can see that an educated adult woman of Indian origin would be suddenly, randomly, informed of the dominant religious belief of the country in which she was begging for medical treatment is that her ethnicity and religion were an issue for the medical staff treating her. That her pleas for a termination were taken less seriously because they were perceived as the pleas of an unchurched foreigner who should have more respect for Irish Catholic beliefs. I have to wonder: was Savita’s ethnicity and religion, even subconsciously, a factor in the decision not to remove the foetus? The foetus which had as much chance of surviving out of the womb as in it?

I’m not saying that racism killed Savita Halappanavar.

I don’t think it was medical incompetence, or institutional misogyny, or even Catholic dogma.

It wasn’t one of these things. It was, I believe, all of them: a fatal intersectionality, if you like, of oppression.

Funnily enough, the concept of intersectionality has been getting some bad press lately. It’s been claimed that the concept of united, multiplatform response to oppression is too difficult for the layperson to understand. Personally I find this attitude patronizing, lazy and incorrect.

As long as intersectional oppression is happening, as long as it is killing people, It is vital that we keep making the effort to both learn and teach intersectional responses.

It’s too important not to understand.

[The image reads “Pro-choice is pro-life”, in red and blue text on a yellow background. It was created by Philippa Willitts and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]