After Savita Halappanavar: Cultural Barriers to Choice

This article was written by catherine irving bowman.

When I was fifteen I went to Ireland on student exchange for a couple of months. My host family lived in the small town of Castlebar in County Mayo, the wild west of Ireland. Castlebar was essentially a country town –at lunchtimes tractors would drive past my school and the lads would chat amongst themselves about what type it was and how they wanted one. The school organised a day off for anyone who wanted to go to “the ploughing”, something I’m still not sure that I understand, but as far as I know was like a fair that involved mud and ploughing fields and selling cows. I took up smoking in Ireland. Kids started drinking at twelve. I saw snow for the first time, and cried. Ireland was a surreal and wonderful netherworld, and I intend to return there, this time permanently.

There are other, less pleasant memories; the mandatory religion class where, firmly pro-choice, I stood out like a sore thumb in a classroom of fifteen-year-olds sagely declaring that abortion is murder. I walked out of that class in disgust and sat in the toilets for the rest of the period, totally blindsided by my first confrontation with pro-birthers. My second, indirect confrontation came during a day-trip to Galway with other exchange students, two German girls. We visited Galway Cathedral and found gory anti-abortion leaflets on every pew. Without me needing to say anything, they helped me to gather up every single one and put them in the bin outside. We stood next to the bin with our arms around each other, in silence.

On November 4, weeks before the death of SavitaHalappanavar’s death at University Hospital of Galway –the closest city to my little adopted town – 3,000 people marched through the streets of Castlebar demanding that abortion remain illegal. I heard about it second-hand, when a girl I still have on Facebook posted a flurry of statuses commending the brave souls who marched. I found the media photos and searched the crowd for the faces of anyone I knew. I didn’t see anyone I recognised, and at first I felt relief that nobody I’d called my friend would vote with their feet, and march against choice. And then my heart sank again, remembering all those kids in that classroom who held those views.

I don’t pretend to understand where pro-birth advocates are coming from. The only explanation I can muster for those kids, and for the 3,000 marchers, and for the people who will undoubtedly keep marching to ensure that more women will die like Savita, and that is to invoke the explanation given to her husband after she asked for a termination: “This is a Catholic country.” Despite the growing number of Irish people who are moving away from the church for whatever reason, the cultural importance of Catholicism is certainly not dead. A far cry from my hometown of Melbourne (largely secular unless you know where to go) where you can access abortion and contraception on demand as often or infrequently as you like, the morass of cultural precedent and expectation in Irish society is perhaps the biggest impediment to changing legislation on abortion.

Irish culture, or at least what I experienced of it, occupies a strange space in which drinking is a celebrated birthright, but even the discussion of sex is still deeply taboo. At school we weren’t offered health or sex ed classes; instead we got religious education, and domestic studies for the girls while the boys went off to wood-shop. And this, of course, is the dichotomy that dogs the argument for abstinence – people uninformed about the mechanics and consequences of sex probably won’t use birth control when they should, thus leading to unwanted pregnancies and, in some circumstances, abortion. To my mind, this is nothing short of dangerous, pure and simple.

Not providing young people with the information they need to make informed decisions about their sexual health and wellbeing is dangerous. It results in sexually transmitted diseases. It results in unwanted pregnancies. It results in teenage girls sitting in scalding baths drinking whiskey, or inserting parsley into their vaginas to try and coax out a period. It results in cases like a girl I met once or twice with a toddler, who never finished school because she had to take care of a baby.

As I write this, the anti-choicers are bleating about how it was the hospital’s fault that Savita died; that she was entitled to an abortion, and that her death is on the doctor’s conscience. True, she was entitled to an abortion. But I don’t think it’s too long a bow to draw when I suggest that she isn’t the first or last to not receive the abortion she’s technically allowed to undergo, not just because Irish legislation is mired in confusion that people refuse to clear up, but because the medical practitioners who could have performed the procedure are afraid. They are afraid of the repercussions of doing their damn job. They are afraid of jail, of abuse, of being slandered in the papers. They are afraid of suffering the same fate of Dr. Tiller, surely the most nonsensical approach by those who demand the “right to life”. And I truly do not know how or when that fear will go away.

I don’t live in Ireland anymore, although I am looking forward to moving back. I think about my friends there, and I hope with all my heart that they’ll never have to “get on the boat”, the veiled term used for going over to England for your abortion. I don’t know if I have the answer to the overwhelming question, other than everyone just leaving each other’s ovaries alone and minding your own damn business, and maybe schools dropping a line or two about condoms. But I do know that these days, I think about that religion class a lot more than I used to, and nowadays I wish I could go back and talk to those kids. Because, God knows, somebody needs to.

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