In late October, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who was 17 weeks pregnant, was admitted to a hospital in Galway, Ireland, in severe pain. Doctors acknowledged that she was having a miscarriage, but over the course of three days, they reportedly refused to terminate the pregnancy and end her suffering because they could detect a fetal heartbeat. Citing Roman Catholic Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion as the reason, the physicians denied Dr. Halappanavar a procedure that most likely would have saved her life. She died Oct. 28.
When I heard the news, an alarm sounded inside. I was born and raised in Ireland, and although I now live in San Francisco, my home country’s antiquated anti-abortion laws have always rankled me. I am a sexual abuse survivor. An adult male, a family friend, periodically abused me from age 5 through age 13. My abuser could have impregnated me at a young age, and in Catholic-controlled Ireland, I would have had no legal recourse but to complete the pregnancy. Even to make my way to England, where abortion is legal, would have proved impossible without my parents’ consent and financial help. No matter my age and circumstances, my parents would never have broken with the Catholic Church and Irish government.
If I had become pregnant at 13 through rape and had the right to choose, I do not believe I would have gotten an abortion. However, I deserved that choice and that right. Every girl and woman does.
In the wake of Dr. Halappanavar’s death, protest and controversy over Ireland’s anti-abortion laws have further deepened the nation’s long-held divisions on the issue of women’s reproductive and bodily rights. Shortly after I emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco in 1992, a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim (publicly identified only as “X”) was forbidden by the attorney general in Ireland to travel to Britain for an abortion, an order her parents appealed. As a result, the Irish Supreme Court ruled to permit abortion whenever a woman’s life was at risk. However, the ruling has since been caught up in a legal quagmire and has yet to be decisively legislated. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland must clarify the terms under which abortion is legal, something the Irish government repeatedly postponed.
I doubt Dr. Halappanavar ever imagined her radiant face would make the front page of Irish national newspapers, certainly not because of her untimely death as a result of septicemia, placing her at the center of a growing outcry over unjust laws.
My mother almost died from septicemia in Ireland’s Mater Hospital, Dublin, in 1975. Septicemia is a serious and often fatal condition that occurs when an infection in the bloodstream causes the body’s immune system to break down. My mother’s septicemia followed uterine surgery, when bacteria infected her sliced body and infiltrated her entire system. Miraculously, my mother survived. Dr. Halappanavar did not. With her cervix dilated, she spent three days at University Hospital Galway before doctors confirmed the fetal heartbeat had stopped and finally determined that church, state and hospital regulations had been met and the termination could be performed. Ireland’s discriminatory laws and the doctors’ inaction allowed a shockingly long window for Dr. Halappanavar to become infected.
It is unforgivable and unethical that those we most trust to take care of us, our doctors and our government — and for some, our church — repeatedly and even fatally fail women.
When I was a girl, my abuser would kneel on his kitchen floor and say the rosary, stringing the brown beads through his huge, ruddy hands, his eyes closed and his mouth mumbling fervently. Later, he would take me into his bed and make another, twisted kind of hallelujah. It is inconceivable to me how my abuser, a layman, reconciled his Catholic faith with abuse, rape and pedophilia. It is similarly inconceivable to me how Irish doctors and the Irish government can reconcile their Catholic faith with the inhumane and unjust treatment of women, especially when their lives are at stake. Religious dogma is all too often manipulated by people, institutions and government for their own ends and made horrifically convenient and criminal.
The Catholic faith and misplaced piousness were tragically used against Dr. Halappanavar. I can only imagine the grief and terrible rage of her husband, her parents and friends. Ireland needs to repeal its inexcusable laws, ensuring that Dr. Halappanavar’s death is the last of its kind in the country.
Ethel Rohan is the author of Cut Through the Bone and the forthcoming story collection Goodnight Nobody.