Americans left agog at confused cruelty of Irish abortion law
A slightly strained week, which was spent trying to explain to Americans here in San Francisco how it is that healthy young women have to die in Irish hospitals.
Ever since Savita Halappanavar’s lovely face appeared on page three of Wednesday’s New York Times, it has been kind of uncomfortable to be an Irish person in certain circles here. But sure that’s pregnant women for you, always a source of embarrassment. Always making fools of us in front of the whole world.
Perhaps America is tired of Ireland’s excuses. The sad bewilderment among liberals here, when they heard the news of Savita Halappanavar’s death in a Galway hospital in October, is worse than any aggression. The thing is, Americans just can’t understand why surgical treatment for a miscarriage can be withheld from a woman on the grounds that the foetal heart is still beating, when medical staff have already agreed that the pregnancy has no chance of survival, as is claimed to have happened in this case. This is proving rather difficult to explain.
It is surprising how much Americans know about Irish abortion law, or the lack of it. “The mother’s life has priority, right?” they ask. Since Wednesday there has been no clear answer to that question. Is it, “We would like to think so”? Is it, “Well, it depends on where you are in Ireland, and also where in Ireland the pregnant woman is at the time”? Or is it “Er, we’d prefer not to think about that, if you don’t mind. Now bung us a couple of call centres, and leave us in peace”?
Church no longer scapegoat
You do get the sneaking impression that Ireland’s usual explanations are wearing thin. Can we, in all conscience, blame the Catholic Church? We thought the church was discredited in Ireland, the Americans say. Oh it is, you say miserably. We thought that Mass attendance had plummeted, they say. Oh it has, you say.
Does the church still own all the hospitals? they ask. Look, you say, it’s not that simple. Before the church let slip the reins of power it trained whole generations of men and women. These are our politicians, our civil servants, our doctors, ourselves. In Irish politics the worst thing you can be is discernibly different. They don’t want to get into trouble. They don’t want to think about unpleasant things.
These are not conditions conducive to the introduction of compassionate abortion legislation. When Clare Daly raised the subject in the Dáil, the chamber was almost empty except for female TDs and a tiny number of left-wing males. The mainstream political parties don’t want to know, and they never have.
“Well, why do you keep voting for them then?” ask the Americans. There is a brief silence at this point. “And these guys in mainstream political parties, don’t they have wives and daughters and sisters and nieces?” Oh they do, you say, the family is terribly important in Ireland. “Well, haven’t they ever been afraid that something like this might happen to one of their female relatives in a maternity hospital?” the Americans ask. Well, you say, presumably they’re hoping that the situation never arises within their own family. The Americans back off here, because some arguments are just too stupid to pursue. On the whole, they are a tactful lot.