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The Savita Halappanavar tragedy: Dial down the outrage, please!

by Lakshmi Chaudhry  Nov 16, 2012 13:56 IST

#Abortion   #Ireland   #Savita Halappanavar   #ThatsJustWrong  

Here's what we know about Savita Halappanavar's death. She died in great agony in the course of a miscarriage which caused septicemia. Here's what we know about Irish abortion laws: It forbids the termination of a pregnancy except where there is a clear threat to the life of the mother.

Then there is all that we don't know as yet. We do not know whether the doctor and attending staff made an error of judgement. Or did they deny medical aid due to religious considerations? We do not know if their decision not to intervene was a consequence of existing Irish law -- which may not protect women in Savita's condition. We do not know whether, as claimed by Irish pro-choice activists, this is one more instance of doctors failing to follow the law out of fear. We certainly do not know if the Halappanavars were also victims of racial bias.

And for a simple reason: it's far too early to tell.

Savita Halappanavar. AFP.

The Galway hospital has launched an internal probe. The Health and Safety Executive, which oversees Irish public health services, has appointed an independent external expert in obstetrics and gynaecology to head the investigative team appointed to look into Savita's death -- because Health Minister James Reilly wants its inquiry to "stand up to world's scrutiny".

Until these investigations bear results -- be it justice or travesty thereof -- it is certainly far too soon to claim that the Irish medical and justice system has failed the Halppanavar family.

Yet none of this has stopped the outrage-mongers from jumping into action -- just as they did in the Norway custody case.

On Arnab Goswami's News Hour, an out-of-control Surana Aiyar, a human rights lawyer, ranted at the camera:

This is something the Indian government must take up. Who were the medical professionals she interacted with in her six days at the hospital. What was the race of the nurses, midwives and junior doctors that she was pleading for an inducement…How much interaction have those people who interacted with this lady had with people of colour… How much have they travelled to outside culture. What is their instinctive reaction to woman screaming in pain in an Indian accent. What was the instinctive reaction to the manner the husband was expressing himself. These are questions that the Indian government must insist are made part of the inquiry.

Goswami's response to this entirely unfounded allegation: "Good point!"

No, it's not a good point. To play the race card at the very outset without a shred of evidence cheapens and trivialises very real racism.

The lone Irish voice on the panel, Nic Mathuna, was rightly angry, "Maybe this is a case of medical malpractice. We do not know. But it is seriously irresponsible to speculate and throw accusations around here."

Aiyar yelled back at her: "How many times have you travelled outside Ireland, Ms Mathuna? How many coloured people are your friends?"

What does that even mean? Should we now suspect racism when an African national dies in an Indian hospital -- because our racism is also a "well known fact" as Aiyar claims of the Irish? Should we be asked to investigate how many of our nurses, doctors et al have traveled to Africa or have black friends?

Aiyar may be dismissed as an one insane voice in the media wilderness, but our politicians have been just as quick to jump the gun. On one side, we have the lady of all feminine causes, CPI(M) Brinda Karat, sounding off: "We should lodge a very strong protest with the Irish authorities as they are responsible for committing a crime which resulted in loss of a human life… It was a medical emergency and they preferred to sacrifice the young woman's life rather than to do something which have gone against their religious belief."

Never mind we don't know if a crime was indeed committed, by whom and for what reason. Maternal mortality rate in India is 212 per one lakh live births, which translates into one maternal death per hour.

Many of these are instances of medical malpractice, others are not. Ireland, on the other hand, has an MMR of one death per 100,000 live births. Even skeptics who put the rate at closer to 10 concede that Ireland remains one of the safest places on earth to have a baby.

The nation has a solid track record in protecting maternal life despite its Stone Age abortion laws. It doesn't rule out all the other speculated scenarios but surely we ought to wait before we start indict Irish authorities as "responsible for committing a crime."

If the CPI(M) is eager to assign preemptive blame, the BJP is flat out challenging Irish sovereignty.

"The Indian Foreign Office must take it up very strongly with the Government of Ireland pointing out the fact that the patient, the lady in this case who is of Indian origin, she was not a Catholic Christian and she kept on saying repeatedly that 'My faith allows I want an abortion to be done', but it was denied to her on religious grounds and which has virtually cost her life. So," Balbir Punj told reporters.

The idea that Irish medical law only applies to Catholics is at best absurd. Abortion laws in the United States, for example, vary from one state to another. As do divorce laws. No one is exempt, irrespective of their race, religion, or nationality. If a person doesn't want the law to apply to her, she has to leave its jurisdiction -- as do the many Irish women who go to the UK to get their abortions.

Savita's tragic demise, however, was caused by circumstances that no one could foresee. But that doesn't make her exempt from the law of the land. And if that law is changed -- as her parents demand -- it will be because of other reasons: the efforts of the many Irish pro-choice groups, the EU requirements placed on Ireland et al. The Indian government is about as able to amend Irish abortion laws -- or claim an exemption for its citizens -- as it is to overturn the Saudi ban on women drivers.

"Can the Indian government be a mute spectator to the denial of human rights leading to Savita's death?" asked a running ticker on the Times Now debate. The reality is that the Ministry of External Affairs has done what it possibly can: Express concern to the Irish government, direct the local embassy to stay involved in the investigation, and offer support and sympathy to the bereaved family.

This is reasonable and appropriate. The overblown outrage is not.