Eamonn McCann - Savita and the Church

Savita Halappanavar
Savita Halappanavar

Derry Diocesan Administrator Monsignor Eamon Martin told the Journal last Friday that many people had approached him following the death of Savita Halappanavar asking for clarification of Catholic Church teaching on abortion. I am not surprised. When the Church itself can seem confused, the rank-and-file must feel bewildered.

Unfortunately, the Monsignor’s remarks will have deepened rather than dissipated confusion.

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that if the Church is at fault for causing confusion, the Irish State can be blamed for generating the ignorance which makes confusion inevitable.

One of the most striking details to emerge from the Halappanavar case was that Savita’s medical notes recorded her requests for a cup of tea and for a blanket - but not her request for an abortion. It would be silly to imagine that this omission was a once-off. What it tells us is that requests for abortions in hospitals in the South are not recorded.

Thus the official answer to the question of how many women with problematic pregnancies have asked for abortions in any given year and how many such requests have been granted is that the record shows that such a ting has never happened. Just as there is no record of the 150,000 or so Irish abortions carried out in the last 30 years. They were outsourced to England.

The rate of abortion in Ireland, North and South, is not out of kilter with abortion rates in developed countries around the world. The difference is that we pretend it isn’t happening.

Then there’s a more subtle semantic dishonesty. With hours of the story of Savita Halappanavar breaking in the Irish Times, spokespersons for “pro-life” groups had deployed across RTE to argue that if Ms. Halappanavar had been given the abortion she had repeatedly asked for, that would have been fine - because it wouldn’t have been an abortion.

The death of the foetus would have been “secondary” to the primary purpose of the medical intervention and should not, therefore, be categorised as abortion.

This shifty approach appears to suffice for both Church and State in Ireland. But it won’t wash elsewhere. When two Irish women brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights a few years back saying that they had been denied their rights when forced to travel abroad for abortions, the Government didn’t try on the no-abortions-in-Ireland line but argued instead that, “the procedure for obtaining a lawful abortion in Ireland was clear. The decision was made, like any other major medical matter, by a patient in consultation with her doctor.”

So legal abortions were, after all, routinely taking place in the State.

The court then asked the obvious question: how many? In response, the Government referred to a range of documents available from “(the) database of the Economic and Social Research Institute on discharges and deaths from all public acute hospitals”.

Having looked at this database, the court commented: “The Government’s statistical material provided in response to the Court’s question concerned public acute hospitals and ectopic pregnancies only and thereby revealed a lack of knowledge on the part of the State as to, inter alia, who carries out lawful abortions in Ireland and where.”

So, while the Government admits that legal abortions take place in Ireland, and insists that the procedures governing these abortions are “clear”, it maintains that it doesn’t know when, where or with what frequency these legal medical interventions happen.

At one level, this is comical. At another, it might be considered grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and shameful.

The women involved are being written out of history, again.

In the meantime, perhaps someone will explain why, if the notion of the fertilised egg having the same moral status as a living, breathing human being is a doctrine of the Catholic Church, as opposed to a recommended belief, how come smart cookies like Thomas Aquinas didn’t see it that way at all?

And how come John Paul II, when preparing the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, decided, with the support of doctrinal chief Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, not to use the word “infallible” in relation to the ban on abortion. In an interview with the National Catholic reporter, Ratzinger later explained that they’d considered using the word but, while the Vatican, naturally, wanted the teaching obeyed, it had been though better not to confer on it “the formality of dogmatisation”.

No dozer, that Benedict.