Jim Carroll

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This republic’s never-ending civil war

There’s an insightful post-US presidential election piece by Jonathan Chait in the new current issue of New York magazine. Chait’s review of the campaign saw him concentrating on how social inequality had become the most promenient issue of the day …

Thu, Nov 15, 2012, 09:26


There’s an insightful post-US presidential election piece by Jonathan Chait in the new current issue of New York magazine. Chait’s review of the campaign saw him concentrating on how social inequality had become the most promenient issue of the day and lead to the quasi-civil war which raged between those in the red corner and those in the blue corner over the last 18 months. In the end, the American people gave their decision: “the 47 percent turned out to be the 51 percent”. The majority rules, Barack Obama is back on Pennsylvania Avenue and he has a mandate to do something about the issue which sent him back to those digs.

At the same time as Chait’s story was published, there was a reminder that some civil wars never seem to end. Over the last 36 hours, the story of Savita Halappanavar’s death in University Hospital Galway has dominated the news cycle here and has been covered extensively abroad (Una Mullally has rounded up a lot of that coverage here). It’s a shocking story: a young, healthy woman allowed to die in a modern hospital surrounded by medical professionals. There’s a medieval tone to Kitty Holland and Paul Cullen’s news piece in yesterday’s newspaper, especially as Savita’s husband relates what happened to her over the course of a week last month. This happened in 2012, in a seemingly modern western republic, this level of insane, inhumane suffering. Maybe that’s what some people want to happen in Enda Kenny’s best small country in the world.

When you hear about Savita Halappanavar, though, you’re instantly reminded of other women who suffered in similar circumstances because of this republic’s obsession with the issue of women’s health and an equally fierce obsession with doing absolutely nothing about it. There are the stories we know about, the stories of the X case from 1992 or the then 14 year old Anne Lovett in Co Longford back in 1984 (a story which is just as shocking today as it was 30 years ago). Then, there are the many stories which never received the same high profile attention, but caused equal amounts of hurt, depression and sadness to those involved down through the decades. This has been an issue which flares up now and again in public when you have a week like this and then goes quiet again, leaving those actually dealing with the fallout from Ireland’s inability to legislate on abortion to wonder does anyone actually care about what’s going on.

Of course, there will be a lot of people who will, quite rightly and passionately, believe that the death of Savita Halappanavar will be the final straw, that this will finally lead to clarity on Ireland’s position on abortion, that protests like the ones around the country last night will force the government of the day to finally do what the governments of the last two decades have not done and bring in long-overdue abortion legisalation. But those who have been here before know what is likely to happen. There will be the usual flurry of inquiries and investigations leading to the usual flurry of reports leading to more delays. But real change? Can we really see the inertia and buck-passing and procrastination which has dominated how we have dealt with this issue over the last couple of decades coming to an end under the current government’s watch? Would we have been waiting 20 years for legislation on another issue which affects so many people? Would we heck.

Saying that this is an emotive issue and needs time and careful handling is simply not enough anymore. We’ve had all those divisive, degrading, hostile debates over the last couple of decades featuring those on the pro and anti sides at each other’s throats again and again and again and no-one wants to repeat those cycles of sheer back-breaking rage. There have been referendums and Supreme Court decisions, but nothing has been done with what has emerged from these. Instead, the Irish solution to an Irish problem has been in full effect. No abortions in Ireland? Look at Fintan O’Toole’s piece from early September, for instance, on the abortions which are carried out annually in Irish hospitals. Perhaps Savita Halappanavar might still be alive today if she had been admitted to a different hospital under the care of a different set of medical professionals? Isn’t that an absolutely horrific thought?

You can already hear renewed sabre-rattling on this issue from the old reliables on both sides, the battle-scarred protestors who have been around the block for the last 20 or 30 years and are still standing and who probably can’t believe this is still going on. But what about the bulk of this republic’s population, the people in the middle? It’s 2012 so it’s probably correct to surmise that a modern nation is wondering why it has taken successful governments so long to actually do something about this. But it’s 2012 in Ireland and that’s a much more confusing situation.

When the Halappanavars were told that this is a Catholic country, that was only half of the story. This is a Catholic country when it suits people for it to be so when it comes to eduction for their kids (even then, as this piece points out, Catholic parents are prepared to go elsewhere when it suits them) or a place for social rituals such as funerals or weddings or christenings. The numbers who claim to be Catholic bears no comparison to the numbers who are active, practising Catholics in the true meaning of the term. Even if there are huge numbers who have no truck whatsoever anymore with the Catholic Church, there’s still a sizable number who call themselves Catholic. It’s these Catholics-in-name-only who must decide if they really want their country to be a place where women like Savita Halappanavar lies in agony in a hospital ward for three days because a doctor refuses to give her the assistance she requires to live.

Most of all, it’s time for us, all of us, to ensure there won’t be any more stories like this to come along and remind us that Ireland is not what we think it is. It’s not about being shamed into doing something because we’re aghast at what others think of us and our medieval republic, but about doing something because it has to be done. Leaving this on the shelf hasn’t exactly worked out well over the last 20 years. Leaving it on the shelf for another 20 years is simply going to mean more cases like Savita Halappanavar.