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Opinion: Savita's Death: A Warning 

Poli Psy

Published December 5, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.


Often when you dodge a bullet, it hits someone else. So, a week after Obama’s election, while pro-choice Americans were luxuriating in relief that the U.S. would not soon have a Supreme Court of Mormon elders or a health care system directed from the Vatican, news arrived from Ireland of just how deadly a pro-“life” government can be.

The death of Savita Halappanavar also offered a warning about the illusions — and dangers — of “moderation” in the abortion debate.

On October 21, Savita, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, was admitted to Galway University Hospital in severe pain. She was 17 weeks pregnant; within hours, doctors determined she was miscarrying. Nevertheless, they could hear a faint fetal heartbeat and refused to perform an abortion. Ireland’s constitution bans all abortions, but 20 years ago the country’s high court ruled that an exception had to be made when there was a “real and substantial risk” of maternal death. That risk must be balanced against the risk to the fetus — even, apparently, if the fetus has no chance of surviving.

As Savita’s condition worsened and her suffering increased, she begged for the operation. No, she was told: “This is a Catholic country.” By the time the fetus was declared dead and removed, Savita had advanced blood poisoning. On October 28, she, too, was pronounced dead. Murdered is the correct word.

Aside from the criminal tragedy itself, what struck me in its aftermath was the extreme narrowness of the debate. The Irish courts in 1992 directed the parliament to write a law clarifying permissible medical practices. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights concurred. The current government claims it was just about to write the legislation.

Since Savita’s death, the discourse has focused on that one exception and that law — on doctors’ choices, not women’s.

On RTE, Ireland’s equivalent of the BBC, for instance, two obstetricians and the medical adviser of the Pro Life Campaign debated the distinctions among miscarriage, threatened miscarriage and incomplete abortion, viability with cervical dilation and ruptured membranes versus ruptured membranes without dilation, and on and on. In the Catholic press, the angels danced on an even smaller pin.

Even abortion advocates’ voices have been pinched. According to its founding documents, Choice Ireland is a “feminist organization” that calls for “free and legal abortion on demand.” But in the news and on the street, enraged and weeping, pro-choice speakers have called only for passage of clarifying legislation. Longstanding Catholic domination of Irish politics has so cowed reproductive-rights activists, it seems, that they feel they can ask only for the least. As a result, they have ended up with the worst. Savita’s death was inevitable.

Here in the U.S., during the campaign season, the discourse on abortion — what little there was, thanks to misogynist outbursts from the likes of Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock — was similarly claustrophobic. The difference between Paul Ryan’s position, against abortion even in cases of rape and incest; and the latest iteration of Mitt Romney’s, which makes those exceptions, became the difference between a conservative and a “moderate” stance.

Politicians who countenance abortion “with restrictions” can masquerade as pro-choice, no matter what the restrictions. Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott called himself “pro-choice but with restrictions” even while he cosponsored the “partial-birth abortion” ban and supported a fetal-homicide bill — both of which come as close to claims of fetal personhood as is possible without spelling it out.

Calling an anti-choice spade an anti-choice spade is read as lying. FactCheck.org repeatedly chided the Obama campaign for claiming that the GOP’s endorsement of a Constitutional “human life amendment” — which gives fetuses the rights of living persons — was meant to ban abortion “even in cases of rape or incest.” No, the fact-checkers conceded, the party platform did not mention these caveats. And, yes, an amendment would let states criminalize abortion in all cases. But not all Republicans are so radical. Supporting the amendment, FactCheck concluded, is “a far cry from advocating an abortion ban that would apply in cases of rape or incest.”

It may be a far cry from exactly that, but it’s not a far cry from, essentially, outlawing abortion. Rape, incest and the threat of maternal death account for about 3 percent of pregnancy terminations in the U.S.

More fundamental: Limiting abortion to these circumstances demolishes women’s choice, and the concept of abortion as a choice, entirely.

Who would determine, and how, whether the legal criteria were met? Would a victim’s word suffice as proof of incest, or would the opinion of child-protective authorities be required? Would a woman have to report a rape to the police, or wait for a conviction, by which time the baby would be born? The judgment, in any case, would be out of the woman’s hands.

And what if imminent death were the only instance in which an American could terminate a pregnancy, as Ryan would prefer? We could expect inquests like the one going on in Ireland, which will parse whether Savita was in fact expiring or merely ill enough to, say, lose her liver.

It is not only the tiny quantity of abortions covered by these cases that makes their exclusive acceptance a disguised ploy to outlaw choice. It is the quality of their circumstances. In rape or incest, a woman becomes pregnant by coercion or violence; she does not have sex of her own volition, with one unintended consequence. And if her life is in danger — even if she wanted the sex and the baby — she merits a termination only when dealt the grimmest of fates. In Ireland, as in the U.S. before Roe v. Wade, there are no elective abortions, only “therapeutic” ones. Doctors — not women — decide.

Abortion’s radical foes consider women’s sexual freedom trivial at best. But that’s not all they assign minimum value to. “To save a 4-month-old fetus, they killed my 31-year-old daughter,” Savita’s mother told Indian television. Make that a 4-month-old dead fetus.

Jessica Valenti, in the Nation, stated it more boldly: “Savita’s death is a reminder that no matter how far we think women have come, to some ... [o]ur lives are worth nothing.”

A shrinking majority of Americans supports a woman’s right to choose abortion. A recent Gallup poll found that only 38 percent favored abortion’s legality in any or most circumstances, compared with 39 percent who believed it should be legal in only a few and 20 percent who would outlaw it entirely. Other surveys, such as one by CBS and the New York Times, yield similar responses.

The U.S. government has a clear anti-choice majority. Thirty-four states elected Republican majorities in their statehouses along with Republican governors. In spite of gains on the pro-choice side in this election, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, anti-choice U.S. Congress members still outnumber pro-choice ones 3 to 2. In the Democrat-controlled Senate, the antis lead the pros, as well.

Last month, the bullet to the heart of reproductive freedom hit its target on the other side of the Atlantic. But make no mistake: It is aimed at American women, too.

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. She was also the author of "Poli Psy," a column that appeared in Seven Days from 2005-2016.


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