Friday, November 16, 2012

Mothers as martyrs: a Catholic theocracy in practice

The tragic recent death of an Indian woman in Ireland resulting from the denial of an abortion has brought Irish abortion law to the forefront of world news. Savita Halappanavar was a dentist living in Galway with her husband Praveen Halappanavar. On October 21, 2012, she entered the University Hospital Galway in extreme pain and clearly miscarrying her 17 week old fetus. The doctor told Ms. Halappanavar and her husband that the amniotic fluid was leaking and the baby would not survive.

The couple requested that the pregnancy be terminated several times over the 3-day hospital stay. A nurse told them that there was no way they could do anything to end the pregnancy while there was a fetal heartbeat present. The doctors refused to perform an abortion, stating “this is a Catholic country.” Ms. Halappanavar responded that she was "neither Irish nor Catholic," but the hospital staff still refused to act. On the third day, the fetal heartbeat stopped. They tried to treat her, but it was too late. Ms. Halappanavar passed away that evening of septicaemia, a severe infection of the bloodstream. Dr. Kimberly Gecsi, an obstetrician at University Hospital in Cleveland, said "when an infection occurs in a pregnant woman's uterus, the only way to treat it is to terminate the pregnancy." Mr. Halappanavar sadly stated, "[i]t is hard to believe that religion can mean somebody's life."

Abortion is still illegal in Ireland, effectively under all circumstances. It was officially outlawed in 1861. In 1983 voters backed proposals to recognise that a mother and unborn child have equal right to life. In 1992, in a case involving a 14-year-old rape victim referred to as the "X-case", the Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortions would be allowed when there was a "real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother." However, in the subsequent 20 years, the Irish Parliament has yet to create legislation to transform this holding into law. To mark the 20th anniversary, left-wing members introduced a bill in the Dáil Parliament to put the holding into action, but it was soundly defeated 109 votes to 20The Sinn Féin party will introduce another such motion in the Parliament demanding the legislation be written and enacted.

However, the senior partner in Ireland's ruling coalition, Fine Gael, told supporters that the coalition would not introduce new laws allowing abortion during its five-year term, despite pressure from its junior partner Labour to act. 4 out of 5 Irish voters support allowing abortion where the mother's life is at risk. But, much like in the United States, there is a very vocal anti-abortion contingency which supports the prohibition of abortion under all circumstances.

Ireland's abortion prohibition does not stop Irish women from ending their pregnancies. An estimated 4,200 women travel from the Republic to Britain and other European countries each year to end a pregnancy. Irish women have had the right to travel outside the country for an abortion only since 2002. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland violated C, a cancer survivor's, human rights when she was forced to travel to England to get an abortion. The court condemned the failure of Irish leaders to legislate, and said the lack of legislative action has resulted in a "striking discordance between the theoretical right to a lawful abortion in Ireland on grounds of a relevant risk to a woman's life and the reality of its practical implementation."

Clearly the country's Roman Catholic faith still dictates reproductive health policy. Ireland's history of controlling women's reproductive health is disturbing to say the least. But beyond abortion denial lies an even scarier practice of Ireland's recent past: symphysiotomy.

Symphysiotomy involves breaking the pelvic bone to allow a woman to give birth in a difficult pregnancy, for example when the baby is breach. It is the barbaric alternative to a cesarean section. To put it more bluntly, Irish women experienced a doctor PULLING OUT A HACKSAW AND SAWING INTO THEIR PELVIC BONES while they were only under local anesthesia. Then the women, who were still in labor, would have to push the baby out with an unhinged pelvis. A survivor put it this way: “I saw the hacksaw, I know what hacksaws are. [The doctor] started cutting my bone and my blood spurted up like a fountain.” Some of the nurses around her were physically ill. The doctor just looked annoyed that she had gotten blood on his glasses.

Doctors performed symphysiotomies without consent of the women. The women did not know what was happening to them. Until she spoke to her son many years later, one woman who had a symphysiotomy thought she had actually had a cesarean section. The doctors kept women in the dark about the procedure, fueled by motivation from the Catholic Church. As one midwife who worked in the 1950s and 1960s put it, "the big thing was to have children even if you dropped dead." In 1931, the Vatican issued an encyclical which in essence said "Mothers who die in childbirth are martyrs...and should be happy to serve as such." The Catholic Church valued the life of the child over the life of the mother, and Irish doctors followed suit.

Symphysiotomy occurred in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, “in the age of the Beatles” as the Lawyer for the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group puts it. The practice had ceased to be used in France in the late-Eighteenth Century. However, the practice continued in Ireland until 1984, which happens to be the year of my birth. It is absolutely shocking and reprehensible that the general public has not heard of this practice! Marie O’Connor, chairperson of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy, describes symphysiotomy as "arguably the biggest human rights scandal in Ireland since the foundation of the State."

Fortunately, a recently released documentary entitled Mothers Against All Odds details this horrible practice and compares it to the awful treatment of mothers in Kenya today. Over 100 members of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group gathered to watch the documentary in Dublin.  They could recognize each other by the limp that resulted from the symphysiotomy. This barbaric procedure mutilated and disabled these women for life, all without their consent. Hopefully, the publicity around the documentary and advocacy by the Survivors of Symphysiotomy group will garner more attention to this atrocious episode in history. You can watch the trailer for the documentary below:

Ireland is a prime example of the dangers of a theocracy in practice. When religion dictates health policy, women are hurt and even killed. The Catholic Church continues to laud women who sacrifice themselves for their unborn child, as evidenced by an article published this year called Emotional goodbye for young Italian mother who died for unborn child published by the Catholic News Agency. This sentiment is dangerous to women everywhere. Savita Halappanavar is not a martyr, but at least her death will not be completely in vain if it results in actual legislation in Ireland to allow abortions where the mother's life in danger. This is not a women's issue or an Irish issue, this is a human rights issue.


KB said...

My skin began to crawl when I was reading this post. I cannot imagine being in such a vulnerable position and watching a doctor whom I was supposed to trust break my body with a hacksaw without my permission. I am amazed that Ireland allowed this violence for so many years after France outlawed it in the 1700s!

Ireland’s abortion laws serve as another example of a society allowing a practice that harms women to continue in the name of religion. At times, Ireland’s abortion laws take two lives away from this world. Are the laws worth the life of an unborn baby AND a mother? I thought the point of the Catholic religion’s outlawing of abortion was to maintain life, not to take it away. As such, it would seem that Ireland’s abortion policies contradict even the Catholic religion’s purpose.

Chez Marta said...

Regardless of whether Ireland is a "Catholic country" or not, the state is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and has incorporated that convention as the European Convention on Human Rights Act of 2003 (see Article 2 of that convention protects the right of every person to their life. Article 3 prohibits torture. Ireland's failure to protect mothers' right to life and to be free of a procedure equivalent to torture is actionable violation of this Convention and their Human Rights Act.

Attisaurus said...

What a truly horrifying post.

It is especially horrifying that the martyrdom of motherhood in the 1931 Vatican communication is alive and well today with ultra-conservative right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh. To value a pre-birth fetus, not yet human by many scientific measures, over the life and livelihood of an adult person - who is capable of producing more fetuses for the state - seems the epitome of misogyny and misanthropy. I am curious as to whether any criminal or civil charges have been brought against this physician/hospital?

I was also reminded of the disgusting Chinese (Confucian, in fact) tenet that a woman is to be beaten by her father into obedience, until she is married off to be beaten by her husband into obedience, and until she is in her old age and to be beaten by her son into obedience. And to my knowledge, this seems to be the only aberration from the deep Chinese for the wisdom of our elders.

KSergent said...

Thank you for the post. The Irish government's response to Savita Halappanavar’s horrific death is extremely unfortunate (see According to CNN, the proposed legislation will help “clarify” when a woman’s life is sufficiently at risk to allow an abortion. This is clearly an insufficient response, and yet, the Catholic Church is urging the Irish people to oppose the law (see I agree that this is a human rights issue and hopefully the international attention this tragedy received will encourage further action.

Mo said...

The tragic situation has reared its ugly head again. A woman in El Salvador, “Beatriz,” is currently 23 weeks pregnant with an anencephalic fetus -- that is, it’s missing most of its brain and skull. Her doctors have indicated that she has a high risk of dying, and the fetus is not expected to live more than a week. El Salvador is an extremely conservative country and its penal code criminalizes abortions, even in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. Beatriz herself released a plea to the government earlier this month (in Spanish, here: begging the government to allow her doctors to perform the procedure, and Amnesty International has recently launched a campaign in her support. By following this link, you can contact Salvadoran officials directly and urge them to allow Beatriz to terminate her life-threatening pregnancy: Read more here: and here: