November 18, 2012

Ireland: where geography kills

November 18, 2012
Savita Halappanavar by Chris Tierney
I remember thinking she looked like she had stepped straight out of the 1960s with her tiny cardboard suitcase and her outdated raincoat. 

She sat in the waiting room almost apologetically, as if she was trying to take up as little space as possible, palpable pain distorting her worry-stricken face. To my 20 year-old self, she looked old, maybe 40 or so. We were in the same waiting room, waiting for the same thing. Unlike many of the other patients, we both wore wedding bands.

We never spoke. This wasn't the kind of waiting room where you made polite conversation or even perused magazines. Instead, it was the antechamber to the point of no return, a no man's land in limbo between the reality we had tried to contain and accommodate for as long as we could, and the unavoidable ordeal on the other side of the door. I briefly wondered how many still found the courage to stand up and walk away at this point, knowing that I wouldn't, couldn't be one of them. 

Although that day I spent at a North London hospital some 17 years ago is mostly a blur now, I never forgot this lady's face. How it transpired that she was Irish I cannot recall, but my heart ached for this woman who had had to travel all the way to London on her own to do something that her country still regarded as a criminal offense. As, incidentally, did the one that issued my passport, albeit for technical rather than moral reasons. 

By then, I had been married for about 8 months, half of which I spent in Germany as part of my degree course. During that time, my husband came to visit me once. When I went home for Christmas, I went to the doctor's because I hadn't had a period for a while and home pregnancy tests were negative. I was sent to the hospital for more tests, which also came back negative.

Fast forward a few weeks, another home pregnancy test, and I was back in hospital, this time for an ultrasound. There were no congratulations from the nurse as I stumbled back onto my feet from the examination table, gooey tissue in my shaky hand. I was in shock and there was only one week left to make a decision otherwise parenthood would be upon us. 

My kindly doctor was as taken aback as I was, assuming direct responsibility for a quirky body that hadn't seen it fit to yield its secrets right until the very last minute. He counselled both my husband and I – together and separately – then made himself available for out-of-hours phone calls.

My decision was a no-brainer. As my marriage was already suffering from neglect and my childhood had been characterised by domestic abuse, I told my husband the pregnancy would have to be terminated.

He didn't seem bothered – bothered, that one adjective that so epitomises British phlegm – one way or another, whether out of excess of pragmatism or genuine lack of care I shall never know. He drove me to the hospital, whipped out his credit card to pay for the procedure, came to collect me afterwards, and that night we went and had dinner at this friends' because he was not the kind to let his wife's scraped raw insides stand in the way of socializing. 

By fall of that year, the disintegration of my loveless and overcrowded marriage was complete.

Several tragic romantic entanglements and seventeen years later, I have no kids. As a child acutely aware of my own extraneousness in my genitor's life, I swore to myself that if I ever had children, it would be solely out of love. As an adult, I made good on my word and vowed that no child of mine would ever be the lynchpin in a bargaining agreement (a so-called 'elastoplast baby' brought into the world to patch up the ailing relationship between two people who should never have gotten together in the first place, like my parents), born out of duty (whether bullied by a ticking biological clock, relatives or peers), or carelessness (unprotected sex, forgotten pill, condom failure...). 

Because I lived in the United Kingdom at the time my pregnancy was discovered, I was free to decide whether my foetus would become a person. Out of love, I decided it would not. Out of self-love even, because it was first and foremost an act of survival: I chose to save my own skin – and mental health – rather than bring another life into the quagmire that was my marriage. I did what my mother, herself unloved and beaten up by her own mother, spent a lifetime wishing she had done. And unlike the Irish lady in the waiting room who was forced to travel abroad for a termination, geography afforded me the privilege of decision.

Some 17 years later, the news have just reminded me that Ireland – like several other countries around the world – continues to deny women sovereignty to their own body, occasionally murdering them in the process. Last week, this denial is widely believed to have caused the death of 31-year old Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar who was miscarrying when admitted yet was repeatedly refused a termination – of her unviable foetus – on the grounds there was still a heartbeat and Ireland was "a Catholic country".

A few days later, Savita died of complications in intensive care. 

And that was how the world learned that no matter how advanced medicine is, it can still prove useless against geography and a legal system that panders to religion.


  1. You don't explain how, if you harbor such pro-choice views, you got pregnant. Married or not, surely you should have been more careful.

  2. Hi there! Let's see... how do women get pregnant?

    Well dear interwebs, here comes the shameful truth: I'm afraid I had sex with my husband, unprotected sex at that. I had been struggling on and off with various kinds of pills - all of which my body didn't take kindly to - and we had left the glow-in-the-dark condoms bought at the sex shop in the Sankt Pauli district in the desk drawer. And I distinctly remember telling my husband afterwards that we very could well have made a baby. Neither of us panicked. In fact, we never got a chance to panic because of the way things panned out. And I was still hopeful about my marriage then - when my husband came to visit in Hamburg - although the cracks were starting to show.

    Should I have been more careful? With hindsight, absolutely but you don't tend to think that the man you married will ever let you down, do you? Else you don't marry him. Also, you don't enter into a marriage thinking it's going to turn to shit...

    The bottom line is that being human means making mistakes. I am human, I made a mistake and I really am not proud of what happened but nor am I ashamed (the use of the adjective "shameful" in the second par is ironic, FYI). Of course I would have much preferred being able to have that baby and bring it up in a loving family.

    Unfortunately, my marriage was very short on love therefore a baby was not an option.

    I trust this answers your question and encourages others to make use of the comment box too.

  3. You were/are much too polite to the judgemental Anonymous. No justification is needed for your decision about your body. If you were unprepared and unwlling to raise a child, you did the right thing.

  4. Of course, Anonymous (the name says it all) has never made any mistakes in his or her life at all.

    The position of Ireland (and the USA) is backward. The foetus in Halappanavar's case wasn't even viable, but still the religious bigots have to impose their will.

    It's shocking that it's taken this incident to shake up Ireland, which seems to progress on some social issues with the speed of a glacier.

    A child should be born into a place where it can be loved and cherished. It is to your great credit that you made a decision not to continue with a pregancy which couldn't guarantee those conditions.

  5. @Helen B: Thanks for your comment. Well, don't we all know by now that "Anonymous" is by definition a/ubiquitous; b/judgmental; c/opinionated? "Anonymous" is a pen name that emboldens...

    However, because I too write anonymously, I can't exactly launch into a rant about having the courage of one's opinions etc so instead I must respect the commenter's reasons for choosing not to identify themselves. Regardless of how it was formulated, I was glad for the question though.

    In my opinion, the more abortion - and the reasons women choose to resort to it - gets talked about, the better. And yes, I agree with you that no one should ever be allowed to interfere with a woman's decision making process about her own body regardless of geography, faith, marital status etc... Sadly, it's still very much a geographic lottery.

    @Looby: "A child should be born into a place where it can be loved and cherished". Yes. Otherwise those kids grow up without a clue about love, and no one should ever have to live like that.