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.

It has also been wearying to have to explain that the place providing Irish women with safe, legal abortion is actually our colonial oppressor and all-round imperial bad hat, England. Talk about the empire on which the sun has never set. Talk about independence.

Talk about illegal abortion, which is still within living memory here. During the week a man remembered how his older sister was brought to east Los Angeles as a teenager for an illegal abortion which left her hospitalised. She had no England to run to. (She survived.) It is memories like that which keep the American abortion law on the statute books, despite the renewed efforts of the American right, and people like the lovely Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican congressman who said publicly that “legitimate rape” does not result in pregnancy. (On Friday, the advertisement in which he apologised for this remark was voted, by the political staff of the Washington Post, to be the worst advertisement of the 2012 election.)

But American abortion law is also kept there by international cases such as Savita Halappanavar’s, which on the face of it indicates how weasel words on the abortion issue can affect the obstetrical care of women who are very happy to be pregnant, and longing for a child.

Amendment of 1983

Too late to explain that the 1983 “pro-life” amendment to the Constitution had consequences which its most arduous proponents did not foresee. It is chilling to wonder if they would have changed their minds if they had foreseen them: the teenagers not allowed to travel; the mature, taxpaying citizens forced to seek medically required abortions in foreign countries.

Is there any American, be they ever so liberal, who wants to know that, back in 1983, those of us who opposed the amendment said it would lead to women dying?

A fear which was summarily dismissed, particularly by the medics who supported the amendment. That is so alarmist, they said. That is hysteria, they said. Leave it to us, they said. And we did. But that explanation is self-serving, and also too long. America has moved on, unimpressed.

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